Glades County may add fire/ems assessment

Glades County Commissioners took a step toward possible implementation of a fire and Emergency Services (EMS) assessment, approved some salary hikes at the road department, and debated measures to protect the Florida Panther at their first meeting of 2016 on Jan. 12.

The commissioners agreed to consider a new tax for fire and EMS services.

A study is required before implementation.

County Attorney Richard Pringle said a very specific set of steps must be followed under state law. Four notices in newspapers are required.

“You are telling taxpayers that you are considering an assessment in the future,” he explained.

He noted the non-ad valorem assessment would be paid by all taxpayers regardless of homestead and other exemptions. All residents would pay the fee, including Moore Haven city residents.

Commissioner Paul Beck said this keeps the option open.

Every year the commission would have to adopt a similar measure annually to keep the proposal alive.

Mr. Pringle noted this has been done before but the commission didn’t impose the assessment.

Commissioner Weston Pryor said he wanted to avoid the assessment. He said the county should be cautious on this issue.

County manager Paul Carlisle said there are budget deficits and issues with the ambulance service in Buckhead Ridge.

“Eventually we have to find a way to balance that out,” he said. “We are running into a wall and have some tough decisions to make.”

Commissioner Donna Storter Long said she hoped the property tax roll increases so they don’t have to impose a new assessment.

Commissioner John Ahern said the county could be out of businesses if financial trends continue. He said he would not consider this assessment this year.

Commission Chairman Tim Stanley said he felt the residents would get some service if the assessment is imposed. He noted the county would have only hired two firemen under the last plan and that would not provide enough of a benefit to citizens.

Commissioner Beck said he “will not tax people to death because that is what ruins society.” He said there are issues with the ambulance in Buckhead Ridge. He divulged that negotiations are under way with Okeechobee County to possibly go back to an inter-local agreement that covered that community in the past.

The proposed assessment would be paid for by all taxpayers. Some argue there are plenty of property owners who pay no property tax. Commissioner Beck said there really aren’t a lot of residents who don’t pay taxes.

Commissioner Beck said only about 50 to 75 home and property owners who currently pay no property tax to Glades County.

In other business, the commission updated their comprehensive plan to accommodate the five year capital projects plan. Among the improvements planned is the Love’s Travel Center on US 27. A 15 acre transfer of land from A. Duda & Sons Inc. to Glades County is pending. Mr. Carlisle said he expects construction to begin sometime in March.

The plan mentioned road projects planned in Lakeport and on Kirby Thompson Road in Muse.
The plan also accommodates various school projects planned by the Glades School Board in their work plan.

Pavement failures on asphalt on Old Lakeport Road have slowed that project.

Electrical upgrades, an updated generator system, and new fire system along are planned at the historic courthouse in Moore Haven in the next year.

The commissioners also extended their moratoriums on impact fees. Fees for roads, emergency medical services, park facilities, and schools, were suspended until February, 2017. Last year, the county would have collected $354,000 in various impact fees had they been in place.

The commission accepted a monetary gift of $40,528 for the library from the Estate of Barbara Oehlbeck.

Commissioner Tim Stanley said some kind of recognition should be made to this family.

Over $15,000 in code enforcement fines have accrued on property at 1414 Ted Beck Road in Lakeport.
Mr. Carlisle said the county should foreclose to collect the fines. He noted studies show blight in a neighborhood often leads to more rundown properties. He said there have been no steps taken by the property owner to correct the violations.

The commission approved a study by staff to pursue the foreclosure.

Commissioner Long said $15,000 in fines could be a good cutoff point for a policy on which properties the county could foreclose.

Mr. Beck said this property is not worth $15,000.

County Attorney Pringle said the goal of code enforcement fines is to have properties cleaned up and brought into compliance with all county codes.

Code compliance officer Jack Woods said the fines accrue at $50 per day per a judge’s order.

Chairman Stanley said the county needs to back the code officer or what is the point of having one.

The commission approved acceptance of the Edward Byrne grant for this Sheriff’s Department. The grant totals $24,271.

The Commission also approved salary adjustments at the road department. Mr. Carlisle said they haven’t been able to keep and recruit employees at the current salary levels.

Deputy county manager for roads Avant Brown said there is diversity between the county and the private sector.

Four people have left for higher salary since September.

“This is a temporary and not a total solution,” he said. “We need to adjust it at budget time.”
Mr. Brown said it would be unfair to hire new employee at salaries that at higher than 15 year veterans. The budget impact this year is $44,814.

Mr. Brown said the new Loves Travel Center will increase gas tax revenues that will give a shot in the arm to the road department.

Commissioner Beck said studies show tremendous increases in gas taxes when a Loves gets up and running.

Mr. Brown said no overtime is paid unless it is an emergency situation.

Commissioner Long said more must be done for county employees. She said the current job evaluation process is not adequate.

She said many employees agreed to take on new responsibilities when the county downsized due to budget cuts. “I just want fairness and a sense we are doing our best for our employees.”

The current evaluation has two outcomes, satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Commissioners state it should be more detailed and on a numerical scale. Mr. Carlisle said the evaluation of an employee should be communicated on an ongoing basis.

The salary adjustments could be made during budget time this summer.

Florida Panther habitat legislation could have an impact on Glades County.

Mr. Carlisle said some of these properties deemed critical habitat would prohibit development and even agriculture on these properties. “We want to preserve the panther but we don’t want any more restrictions on our land.” He asked for a letter to be sent to the President, Congressman Vern Buchanan, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Commissioner Ahern said the Panthers aren’t afraid of people anymore. He said he has seen panthers lying around in a pasture just like a household cat.

Last year a record number of panthers, 41 were killed in collisions with vehicles in Florida.

Special to Glades County Democrat

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