SEBRING - When Debra Worley studies a U.S. Census comparison of Avon Park, Lake Placid and Sebring, a picture emerges of how similar - and how remarkably different - the municipalities are.
Five-year American Community Survey estimates show 9 percent of Lake Placid citizens earn $75,000 or more, compared to only 2 percent of Avon Park and Sebring city residents. Two percent of Lake Placid residents earn $200,000 or more, but none in Avon Park.
"We have a higher rate of retirees," said Worley, a town councilor and real estate broker. "And they have higher incomes, even though they're retired."
However, 19 percent of Lake Placid and Avon Park residents have zero income. Why? The census measured 15-year-olds and older, but that's not enough for Worley to account for such a high percentage. Lake Placid also ranked first among the three municipalities with families whose income in the past 12 months fell below the poverty line.
"Our poor people are very poor, and our rich people are very rich," Worley said.
"It's socioeconomics," said Jim Brooks, a county commissioner who represents Avon Park. "Look at the economic indicators. Which school has the most reduced or free lunches? Look at the city limits. You don't have the mix you have in Sebring or Lake Placid."
City administrators have long complained that Avon Park's city limits have few houses that rise above the $75,000 homestead exemption level, so most pay little or no property taxes. That's one reason why current Avon Park has begun annexing adjacent subdivisions and basing the city's income on utilities rather than property taxes.
"Look at the ad valorem taxes in Avon Park," Brooks pointed out. "Lower-income people are living in the city limits of Avon Park, and the people with more money are living in the county. That's not a negative comment; a fact's a fact."
Highlands County has 22 percent service jobs, and Avon Park leads in that category with 29 percent; Sebring ranks lowest with 22 percent, but leads in management, business, science and arts jobs.
"Sebring has more job opportunities," explained Chip Boring, a broker at RE/Max Realty Plus in Sebring. "It's the county seat. It's perceived to have a little more of everything. The college is in Avon Park, but for travel purposes, it's close to Sebring."
Because wealthy Lake Placid citizens earn more, they can afford to hire people for home services.
"No question about that," Boring agreed. "I don't want to spend three hours pulling weeds, and then I can't move for three or four days."
Avon Park is more ethnically diverse: The Yellow Pages lists a half-dozen Greek restaurants in Highlands County, most of which are owned by Greeks. However, the Census lists 52 Greeks in Avon Park, 11 in Sebring, and none in Lake Placid.
Avon Park also leads the ancestry categories with 603 West Indians from the Caribbean, 235 Czechs, 230 Hungarians, 220 Norwegians, 180 Slovaks, 292 Subsaharan Africans and 283 Welsh.
Although Lake Placid is the county's smallest municipality, the town ties Avon Park with the greatest number of parents in the labor force (76 percent). But Lake Placid citizens are also more likely to be agricultural workers (29 percent).
Although they lead in menial jobs, Lake Placid citizens can also boast the highest median household income at $33,534; Sebring is second with $30,319; Avon Park third with $28,189. However, the census noted, about 40,000 people live outside the three municipalities, where the median income is $34,913.
As a real estate broker, Boring understands why. If they can afford it, homebuyers prefer "to live where it's less crowded, where they can be closer to the water. Until they reach a certain age, and then they want to be closer to facilities. When they become physically impaired, that trend will change."
"Most (32 percent) of them work in maintenance, and people hire them to do things," Worley said: "lawn mowing, pools, lakefront maintenance, they have their houses cleaned by people, pressure clean houses and their businesses."
Twenty-two percent of Lake Placid citizens hold service jobs, and the town is surrounded by a hospital and three assisted care facilities. Many families are also affluent enough to hire private nursing care.
Avon Park adults are more likely to have a bachelor's or higher degree, 17 percent, compared with 15 percent in Lake Placid and 12 percent in Sebring.
South Florida State College "may have something to do with that," Brooks said.
In Highlands County, 8,500 Hispanics were counted in the 1990 census, which doubled to 17,000 by 2010. Latinos tend to live in urban areas: 24 percent in Sebring, 29 percent in Avon Park, 38 percent in Lake Placid.
"Lake Placid is very family oriented," Worley said. Many migrants came to pick fruit and moved on, but some bought property and became permanent residents. If their children are born in America, parents are completing the circle by becoming citizens, too. Of the foreign-born populations, Avon Park had 12 percent naturalized citizens, Sebring counted 11 percent, Lake Placid 8 percent.
"After the influx of Hispanics over the last 20 years, a lot have become permanent residents," Brooks said. "And the hospitals have quite a few foreign nurses and employees.
"I've got two Hispanic employees who work for me," said Brooks, a co-owner of Reflections on Silver Lake mobile home and RV park, south of Avon Park. "One is naturalized, another has a permanent green card, and one of them is a multiple property owner."
It's the same in the rest of America. Latinos now total 52 million and make up 17 percent of the U.S. population. The Hispanic segment grew by 48 percent between 2000 and 2011, while the national population is growing at 9.7 percent rate.
And although American Latinos are financially better off than their third-world counterparts, their American lives are not all wine and roses: 25 percent of Hispanics live in poverty. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the Hispanic youth unemployment rate is 35 percent. Johns Hopkins University's study shows only 64 percent of Hispanics graduate from high school.
Lake Placid and Avon Park have more four-or-more person housing units (29 percent to 24 percent, with Sebring at 14 percent), and Worley knows why. In 2006, after Avon Park's then-Mayor Tom Macklin attempted to pass an ordinance that would have shut down local businesses alleged to hire undocumented workers and fined landlords who rent to those without residency papers, marchers protested, and many moved to Lake Placid.
"Now, we have the most migrant labor camps," Worley said. Camps are dwellings, licensed by the county health department, that rent temporary quarters to migrants who are usually here to pick crops. "One apartment building downtown totally converted to a labor camp."
Brooks, Boring and Worley were surprised by only a few of the numbers they saw; the census mainly confirmed what they already knew about their own areas.
"I hope that folks that are sitting on the board of directors of the Industrial Development Authority take a look at these, though," Boring said, commenting on the lack of industrial jobs: 3.1 percent in Avon Park, 0.4 percent in Lake Placid, and 3.4 percent in Sebring.
"It always gets back to employment. We need some creativity to attract industry to come in and provide jobs. "
Census by the numbers
About 47 percent of Avon Park and Sebring grandparents who live in the same home take care of their grandchildren, but only 31 percent in Lake Placid.
Avon Park has the greatest number of high school graduates or higher with 83 percent, compared with 79 percent in Sebring and 76 percent in Lake Placid.
Avon Park ranks highest in cash public assistance and food stamp benefits with 23 percent, followed by 14 percent in Lake Placid and 16 percent in Sebring. Only 11 percent of Highlands County residents who live outside the three municipalities draw food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Lake Placid leads with the number of residents without health insurance, 35 percent. Avon Park was next with 25 percent, Sebring counted 24 percent.