A SPECIAL MEETING OF THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
aUGUST 20, 2014
The Lake County Board of County Commissioners met in special session on Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 11:00 a.m., for the Lake 100 Meeting in the Legends Ballroom at the Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. Commissioners present at the meeting were: Commrs. Timothy I. Sullivan and Leslie Campione. Others present were: Barbara F. Lehman, Chief Deputy Clerk, County Finance; and Susan Boyajan and Amy Knoll, Deputy Clerks.
Rob English opened the Lake 100 Meeting consisting of a group of CEO’s from around Lake County with a mission to make Lake County a better place to live and work. He went on to introduce the moderator, Mandy Wettstein. He also thanked Commissioners Sullivan and Campione for attending.
Moderator, Mandy Wettstein, Marketing Director of Appleseed Marketing, briefly explained the rules for the meeting, keeping questions to 30 seconds from the public and also giving each Commissioner two minutes to answer each question. She noted that Lake 100 did extend an invitation to all five Commissioners and thanked Commissioners Sullivan and Campione for attending.
Commissioner Campione thanked Lake 100 for the opportunity to be present at the meeting and thanked the business owners for coming out to share their input. She related she has worked very hard on the issue of economic development in Lake County. She stated the image she wanted to portray to Central Florida, to the State of Florida and to the United States is that Lake County is a great place to do business. She noted the image needs to be backed up with a policy that encouraged people to open new businesses in Lake County. She stated that when the proposed budget was introduced with the substantial millage increase, she felt it would be counter-productive to all the good work the County had done with news reports going out regarding the 18 percent millage increase with a spin stating that the majority of the County Commission supported the increase. She noted there were significant reports in the weeks leading up to the budget release stating that the County did not have enough money to pay for libraries, basic services, funding central services and that the infrastructure was failing, which in her opinion were over-inflated statements being made in order to get people prepared for there being no other choice. She pointed out her position is that there is another choice including keeping the spending level exactly the same as the past budget cycle, stating there would be no shortfall. She reported the one item that would have to be addressed is the substantial amount of debt service that is paid on the new Judicial Complex in the downtown Tavares area and she suggested that sales tax revenue could be used to cover that debt service.
Commissioner Tim Sullivan noted this is the second budget that he has had the opportunity to weigh in on. He explained that the Commission had many workshops in the past to prepare for the budgetary process. He stated that he does not believe that an 18 percent millage increase is the right thing. He pointed out that the County has spent down from $33 million dollars in reserves to about $8 in million in reserves, and this cycle cannot continue, noting there are ways to mitigate the proposed increase. He stated there is a lot of work to do between now and September to come up with the right number for an increase to meet the needs of the County and sustain quality of life, but at the same time to continue to grow economically.
Moderator, Ms. Mandy Wettstein opened the forum to the public.
Mr. Bud Beucher, proprietor of Mission Inn, inquired whether he correctly understood that previous budget workshops were held with the Commission, and this year they were not and if so, he wanted to know who was responsible to call those workshops. He opined that he felt there was a vacuum of leadership.
Commr. Campione remarked she had served as Chairman of the County Commission, in the past and it had been difficult in the past two years to come up with a budget that would not require any changes in the tax rates. She remarked that Lake County does not use zero based budgeting and she explained that when she was Chairman they would meet with each department head once a month regarding the budget and bring forth ideas regarding what cuts could be made. She related that in the past two years there was a budget workshop almost every month. She noted the first time they met this year regarding the budget was in January and then again in June, and stated she felt this was problematic.
Commr. Sullivan pointed out that the Chairman sets the agenda on when the Board meets. He stated that there was a workshop session within his first month as a Commissioner during the first year he was on the Commission, and that this year there has only been two workshops. He stated it was a challenge to work on a multimillion dollar budget and make the right assessments.
Mr. Gary Youngblood, Lake 100 member, of Howey-in-the-Hills commented he did not feel there had been enough emphasis on due diligence. He inquired as to why they are still in the Florida Retirement System versus a 401K program.
Commr. Sullivan explained the state retirement system is a defined benefit program, but he related he could not speak to why other options have not been explored, although he did comment that there is a high cost to get out of the retirement system. He related he believes there is due diligence, but that he did have a proposal he wanted to take to the EMS Board to look at the operational side of emergency medical services to possibly gain some insight into cost saving ideas. He related that the collection rate on money owed for taking someone to the hospital is only about 54 percent.
Commr. Campione commented that County government employees do have to be members of the Florida Retirement System (FRS). She pointed out that outsourcing certain services is a way to prevent those employees from going into FRS, giving examples of public works and maintenance. She elaborated that the savings they would experience by privatizing libraries would be in the FRS expenses, noting that the company could use their retirement plan of choice because they were a private company. She reported an observation she made in going through the math on the 18 percent increase to illustrate that what was proposed was extremely high, the number could be cut in half by changing a few things.
Mr. Rich Kelley, Lake 100 member, of Mount Dora remarked on duplication of services between county and cities using the example of police services from both City and County responding to calls at the same time. He requested an explanation as to how the process was mitigated and who decides which department should be responsible.
Commr. Campione stated that the problem with solving the duplication of services is that as elected officials on a County Commission, it is very difficult to go to city officials and start a dialogue about consolidating services. She remarked this is very politically charged, and each entity starts looking out for their own jurisdiction and territory. She noted there are savings that could occur by consolidating some of the public safety services, but she believed for this to occur in Lake County, it would have to be more of a movement from the citizens and taxpayers. She did note there are special aid agreements between law enforcement agencies, and there is a protocol regarding who would typically respond, explaining city officers would respond first within city limits, but that the Sheriff’s Department would provide backup. She remarked Fire and Rescue have to go to accidents. She also commented that the Ambulance Service for both City and County could be consolidated allowing for a tremendous amount of savings.
Commr. Sullivan reported that they have created Interlocal Service Boundary Agreements (ISBA) in the last year and a half in order to cut down multiple services responding at the same time to the same place. He explained that 43,000 visits are run in the EMS system, but the Fire Service is about 20,000.
Mr. Michael Rich of Lady Lake commented that he is the General Partner and President of Harbor Hills and is currently paying $250,000 a year in real estate taxes. He noted an 18 percent increase would be a $45,000 a year increase for and he related how the tax increase would affect his business of selling homes and rentals.
Commr. Campione remarked her position is that she does not want to raise taxes at all in Lake County and that she understands the effect raising taxes will have on the very fragile economy. She commented that taking $15 million out of the private sector and putting it in the public sector would be a mistake. She suggested that $5.74 million could be used as infrastructure sales tax to pay debt service on the Judicial Complex, which would still leave $5.1 million available to use for capital projects, and $500,000 could come out of Solid Waste reserves for fuel remediation at the Astatula Landfill site. She mentioned there is a new criminal tunnel in the new Courthouse that will be used to transport prisoners from the jail over to new courtrooms, which would cost about $270,000 more a year in order to have security for those inmates being brought over to the new courtrooms, but they would save that $270,000 this year if the criminal cases were kept in the old courtrooms. She stated there was a $731,000 reduction in the purchase order carried forward and reserves, which almost doubled from the previous year. She pointed out that those figures amounted to a $7 million dollar shortfall amounting to a 50 percent reduction in the proposed millage.
Commr. Sullivan commented that he does not disagree with anything Commr. Campione related on this point, and he felt the Commission did not do its homework to get to the point we are now. He stated there are things that can be done with sales tax money to pay for capital costs, but he felt that would not meet the total budget. He was in agreement that the 18 percent could be trimmed down to probably half of that amount.
Mr. Thomas Clark of Leesburg, the owner of three business and rental properties, inquired as to how he explain to his tenants that the tax increase was a good thing for them.
Commr. Sullivan pointed out that Sumter County is the only county in their area that has a lower ad-valorem rate than Lake County, even with the proposed increase. He remarked that all Mr. Clark’s tenants use services provided by the County such as police, fire and ambulance, all of which are paid for by tax dollars. He stated he agreed that the tax increase is high and that the number needs to be mitigated down, but that it probably would not get to zero.
Commr. Campione stated she hoped Mr. Clark would not have to explain to his tenants about the tax increase, since she hoped there would be a complete reversal from the other three Commissioners on the vote in September. She urged the public to be at the meetings in September. She noted that although she has heard it reported by a local columnist that this tax increase will only cost about $110.00 on a typical home with an estimated $100,000 value, the higher the home value, the higher the tax increase, relating that the tax increase could be as high as 22 percent in Groveland where the home values increased. She mentioned if the property is rental property, then there is no help from the exemption. She stated that a $110.00 increase is a significant increase for many families, especially for fixed-income households. She pointed out that Lake County gives grants to not-for-profit organizations and partners with them, which in turn helps keep the millage rates low.
Senator Richard Langley of Clermont thanked the Commissioners for attending the meeting. He noted he had two concerns, one of which is duplicity of services. He commented that the Commissioners were not elected to tend to the wants of people, but the needs of people. He noted that the taxes on his home would increase more than $1,000.00.
Commr. Campione remarked when it is time to decide whether or not to have a millage increase, if one of the items on the list of things that might have to be cut in order to avoid an increase is a park, then the question is right on point. She noted from an economic development strategy, it is important to have a vision about the County. She remarked that Lake County has continued to do some great things with its tourism dollars such as the Leesburg Bikefest bringing money into our downtown districts.
Commr. Sullivan commented he did not disagree with the Senator’s assessments. He related that he did not think a $1.1 million transfer out of the General Fund to Parks & Recreation was appropriate while having to raise taxes to help pay for it. He mentioned that there are projects in this budget that have been put off for years such as a storm water project on Wolf Branch Road that could be put off again. He pointed out there are second and third order effects that need to be considered on projects such as putting in a new park, which requires maintenance that in turn adds to an operational budget. He related that the Judicial Center is an area that they will take a hard look at in the budget as well.
Mr. Ed Holder of Tavares inquired as to who the public should contact with ideas regarding cutting the budget and commented that he has an idea that would reduce the jail budget by $2 million dollars a year.
Commr. Sullivan noted these are issues he is involved in as the County Commission liaison to the Public Safety Council Committee. He related that one of the problems in our jail system is recidivism with 60 percent of the people who spend time in our jail going back to jail. He reported there are some federal and state grant dollars available to help start a transitional program to cut that percentage down. He noted if we could cut that in half, it would prevent them from having to build a new jail for many years. He mentioned that the CFAC (Capital Facilities Advisory Committee) is a group that Mr. Holder could get involved in.
Commr. Campione commented that citizens should be able to pick up a telephone and ask for a meeting with any of the Commissioners. She noted that the idea about addressing the recidivism and having a re-entry program came from a resident and she mentioned that this type of program was an example of things that could be done in the private sector to address long term costs of County government. She stated it was critical having a partnership between the County Commission and the business community and having an open-door policy to share information.
Mr. A. J. Rohe, Attorney, of Yalaha thanked the Commissioners for their attendance. He noted his concern was about scaring the public with a large budget increase and then expecting the public to be thankful when it is reduced.
Commr. Campione suggested speaking to all three of the commissioners, but that there needed to be specifics, facts and figures to get the budget reduced. She opined if the County could keep the spending at the same level as last year, there would not be a shortfall. She stated she understood there were no negotiations over any of the budgets submitted from other agencies and she pointed out there could possibly be savings in each one of these budgets.
Commr. Sullivan commented that all the Commissioners and the Constitutional Officers should hear from the residents, because 60 percent of the budget goes to the Constitutional Officers. He stated he felt it was important for the residents to contact the Commissioners with concerns and specifics as to the effect the tax increase will have on them.
Mr. Cesar Villareol of Tavares explained he came from South America and worked very hard to form a corporation and become successful, but this increase was going to hurt his business. He noted he had called and emailed the Commissioners several times with questions about the raise in taxes, but Commr. Campione was the only one to respond. He inquired as to how to go about speaking with the other three Commissioners in regards to conveying his sentiment that the tax increase was not a good idea.
Commr. Campione responded that when e-mail fails or a letter does not get a response, to call the County Commission Office and ask for a face-to-face meeting and possibly bring in other residents to speak directly to them. She related that she wanted to share an idea for freeing up revenue to pay for operating expenses. She stated she was very much against the trash contract that was signed as was Commr. Sullivan, who also voted against the contract, and noted that $3.1 million was taken from the Solid Waste reserve to essentially pay for a loss in the operation of the Solid Waste Program that is not used as a Class 1 landfill. She noted the landfill was used for ash from Covanta, and they paid to use the landfill. She explained they could work with Covanta to generate revenue and to come up with a contract where they would pay to put the ash there and manage it. She reported that contracts were put in place that cut the services in unincorporated Lake County down to once-a-week regular trash pickup service. She related Covanta had put an offer on the table that was not considered, and ultimately $2 million could have been saved by working with Covanta on their recycling proposal, which would have been freed up for this budget cycle in the General Fund to be used to offset some operating costs.
Commr. Sullivan addressed Mr. Villareol stating that he agreed with Commr. Campione regarding the process of making an appointment to meet face-to-face with the Commissioners. He also noted there is about $3.7 million dollars in a fund to close the landfill and it is an area where they could use some of those dollars to mitigate the $500,000 they have for the fuel spill.
Mr. Bennet Walling of Leesburg inquired as to the cost of basic services the government performs without taking into consideration parks and libraries. He encouraged the Commissioners to lead their staff to budget more closely as it is done in the private sector and stated government should be run more like a private business.
Commr. Sullivan commented he was in agreement with Mr. Walling. He stated he has worked with the staff based on input received from residents using three different ideas to reduce the millage rate.
Commr. Campione stated the disconnect between the government and the private sector was one of the main reasons she became involved in politics. She commented it was exciting to be a part of events such as ribbon cuttings and opening new parks, but that at times people get so involved in that side of it they lose sight of how decisions actually affect the people in Lake County. She remarked that Lake County does do a lot of things that do affect quality of life, and she believes the key is finding the right balance. She remarked that libraries are changing with technology and that some of Lake County’s rural libraries are the only sense of community. She stated Lake County needs to get the best value for the services it provides.
Mr. Andy Dubois of Howey-in-the-Hills inquired as to when residents could expect the Commission to do their homework to get to the point Lake County government only spends what is taken in without increasing taxes.
Commr. Sullivan related that some of that is historical, and the budget was balanced by taking out of reserves when the property tax values dropped 38 percent over the last five years. He commented Lake County has not gotten to the point where they are able to spend only what is being taken in.
Commr. Campione explained that there is roughly $3 million more in the General Fund this year as a result of property values increasing and tax roll increasing. She remarked that each year reserves were pulled out that had built up very quickly during the real estate boom. She noted that the Board was also making cuts each time money was pulled from the reserve. She noted they are now at a point where values have gone up a reasonable rate of 4 percent and 7 percent in South Lake County and she opined that the idea that the tax increase is due to reserves being utilized is not true. She noted that the unemployment rate has gone up twice since the impact fee increase in January.
Mr. Jim Krakowski of Clermont, a retired businessman, commented that Lake County has to have a government that is friendly to business in order to grow and attract others, and a strong and viable public education was also key to growing the business community. He noted he has had an ongoing email dialogue with Commr. Parks. He inquired as to how families with students on a reduced or free lunch program are going to afford an 18 percent tax increase. He stated there has been tremendous growth in population in South Lake and he inquired as to how the districts are going to be funding the growth.
Commr. Sullivan commented that concurrency rules and regulations need to be looked at to make sure they mitigate the cost of any impact on the school system or fire system. He stated that impact fees were implemented in different areas of the county based on how fast they were growing, giving an example of transportation impact fees implemented at 70 percent in South Lake, but only at 13 percent in North Lake. He noted this is a viable funding source, and he had suggested the school system try to do the same type of plan.
Commr. Campione commented that massive improvement is needed in the Lake County School System, but unfortunately there is only so much the County Commission can do in that regard. She related that impact fees are related to bricks and mortar and can only be used to build new schools. She noted that efforts need to be focused in areas where new housing is being built if impact fees are the only mechanism the school districts have. She reported that there would be a meeting with the School Board hopefully in the next month regarding the possibility of making smaller capacity areas in South Lake County.
Ms. Diane Grande of Mount Dora inquired how the 18 percent tax increase was decided and how the Commission voted on issues without all the facts.
Commr. Sullivan responded that a 1 millage increase equals about 18 percent, which was decided to meet the shortfall of $15 million. He noted the Commission could vote for a less millage rate, but they cannot vote on a higher rate.
Commr. Campione pointed out that workshops were done on a monthly basis when she was serving as Chairman allowing each department to justify the expenditures. She noted the Chairman works with the County Manager, and they schedule workshops. She remarked that the Board was presented a scenario of a status quo budget during the meeting in January, which showed a $4.3 million shortfall, but the budget that was presented by the staff in June was different with many different spending items. She also explained that the Sheriff asked for more money in his budget between January and June and that the Board does not receive his request until June. She explained the budget submitted by the Sheriff was $3.2 million over the current budget.
Ms. Rozann Abato of Mount Dora thanked Lake 100 for the public forum and the Commissioners for their attendance, and she expressed concern that the other three Commissioners were not present. She commented that two budget meetings in six months is irresponsible.
Ms. Tracy Belton of Mount Dora inquired as to the amount of property each of the Commissioners owned in Lake County and how the tax increase was going to affect each of them.
Commr. Sullivan replied he has two rental properties located in Lake County as well as a personal home, which is under the Save Our Homes Program that only allows the assessment to go up 3 percent, but the rent in his personal office will go up.
Commr. Campione reported that she owns property in Eustis and Mount Dora and also owns rental properties. She noted as a County Commissioner this will hurt the economy and residents on fixed incomes.
Mr. Mark Fisher of Mount Dora inquired as to how they get to the level of detail necessary to assess the validity of the current requests, and he stated in going over documents he requested from the county, he did not see the relevant and pertinent information concerning expenditures made in the previous fiscal year and proposed expenditures on the current proposed budget. He inquired as to how to get the Board to get the details for the citizens.
Commr. Sullivan opined that they need more detail in regards to the Sheriff’s budget, and expressed surprise that the expenditures were not on the Sheriff’s website. He remarked that the EMS budget is based on revenue they bring in, noting the vast majority of the $1.6 million budget is for raises and capital expenditures. He explained one way to mitigate those is to use sales tax to pay for the capital improvements.
Commr. Campione remarked it was important for constituents to reach out to constitutional officers and ask for details. She noted pressure from the public for specificity is very important, and suggested Mr. Fisher take the request directly to the Sheriff.
Mr. Don MacGruder of Lady Lake commented that the absence of the other three Commissioners enhances an antibusiness message in Lake County. He pointed out Sumter County has tentatively lowered their millage rate below Lake County. He noted residential and commercial growth along with their Commissions fiscal responsibility to their tax payers were the reasons Sumter County lowered their rate. He inquired how an 18 percent millage rate increase encouraged growth.
Commr. Campione replied that Sumter County is somewhat of an anomaly because of the Villages and so many retirees with high quality homes requiring very little services. She noted that because so much of the growth in Sumter County is 55 and older communities, they are not putting the same impact on schools. She explained there is a level at which new home construction does not take more money out of the tax roll and finding the right balance for Lake County is critical.
Commr. Sullivan related that one of issues that made him decide to run for County Commission was economic development. He explained homeowners pay 70 to 75 percent of the ad-valorem taxes versus commercial and industry. He stated he supports having an Economic Development Department to help bring businesses to Lake County to get a mix between home and commercial development to alleviate the pressure on everyone concerning ad-valorem taxes.
Mr. Bill Stomp of Tavares asked if the 18 percent that was selected to be advertised was nothing more than a strategic number allowing the Board to then reduce it then expecting the public to be pleased with the reduction.
Commr. Sullivan replied he did not disagree. He stated only having the meetings in January and then June and having to make a decision in regards to the budget in July was not the right way to do business.
Mr. Bill Stomp mentioned there are 66 other counties in Florida with other practices that could be mimicked and inquired if there was someone on staff who could explore other counties and their practices.
Commr. Campione noted he made a very good point, and she feels very concerned about Lake County as a whole losing credibility because of the high millage rate being set. She explained that Lake County has worked hard to improve their image as a business-friendly community and it was wiped away in one fell swoop. She related she is an optimist who believes they could turn this situation around with some extra hard work, and she related getting the rate reduced to nothing higher than 4 percent was a step in the right direction.
Mr. Dan Robuck of Leesburg reported there is a proposal to spend about $5 million dollars renovating the old Courthouse for the Public Defender and State Attorney in addition to a new tunnel from the jail to the new Courthouse, and he noted Commr. Parks had posted on his website that one of the reasons for the increase was for new furniture for the old jury deliberation rooms. He inquired why they have to spend these funds, noting other solutions are available without spending as much.
Commr. Sullivan responded that some of those expenditures may be from the original project that was cut in half and that the Board needs to look into alternatives and ways to mitigate some of those costs. He also suggested that the $5 million to do those projects could be spread over a few years and free up more money out of the penny sales tax.
Commr. Campione opined that she agreed with Mr. Robuck, stating this is not the time to do these types of projects while contemplating a tax increase. She commented that it was not the right time for a complete renovation, but that basic needs could be met, and she favors leaving the criminal cases in the existing courtrooms. She related it will cost $260,000 a year to operate the new tunnel system, holding cells and elevator over to the new courtrooms. She noted this is the time for everyone to tighten up and make some sacrifices.
Mr. Chuck Johnson of Leesburg inquired who was to be held accountable for the 18 percent increase.
Commr. Campione related that the other elected officials on the Board were the people to hold accountable and who the public needed to talk to and convince that the increase is not justified. She then reiterated her stance on making priorities and making sacrifices to get to a better budget. She stated that something happened between January and June other than Sheriff’s budget that caused the increase.
Commr. Sullivan echoed what Commr. Campione stated and added that they are taking capital dollars and moving them into the General Fund as there is a concern regarding renewal of the penny sales tax. He added that he is a political novice, and this is a new process for him.
Commr. Campione thanked the attendees for coming to the meeting and for their input and asked them to continue to be diligent in letting their opinions and positions be known. She noted there is still time to fix this issue. She stated it is a difficult position to be on a Board of five Commissioners, stating they are colleagues trying to work together, but they do not always agree. She pointed out that this is not a bad thing and that having a diversity of opinion, honest dialogues and debates is a good part of democracy. She pointed out she was elected to represent the tax payers. She mentioned there are other avenues that she has outlined to reduce the budget, but that it requires every single part of the budget, including every agency that submitted a request to look at ways they can tighten up in order to accomplish the most pressing needs. She commented that the Sheriff wanted to give raises, which is important to keep good officers employed and she feels there is a way to give the raises and keep the millage rate increase down. She stated she will stand firm that this is not the right time to send a message that Lake County is making it more costly to live and do business in the county. She remarked she is hopeful this will not stop the penny sales tax renewal, since the penny sales tax is a great way to generate revenue that is fair with the benefit of using those funds to do very important things. She stated that using those funds right now to pay debt service on the Judicial Center is the responsible thing to do, as well as to purchase ambulances, patrol cars and help in building sidewalks in the future.
Commr. Sullivan thanked everyone for attending the meeting. He explained that they may not have been as prepared because of the way the budget was done this year, as far as workshops. He related that the backlash from the citizens giving input sets a clear direction for the County Commission, but these are difficult positions as there are just as many citizens who are willing to pay more taxes and asking for no cuts. He opined that the County needs to mitigate the tax increase and utilize the resources they have to continue to move the County forward in the area of economic development, with a long term goal that taxes will not be an issue as when they have the right mix of commercial business and homeowners.
There being no further business to be brought to the attention of the Board, the meeting was adjourned at 1:00 p.m.
jimmy conner, chairman
NEIL KELLY, CLERK