A SPECIAL MEETING OF THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
september 8, 2014
The Lake County Board of County Commissioners met in a special Chamber Alliance town hall meeting session on Monday, September 8, 2014 at 6:00 p.m. at the Legends Ballroom, Mission Inn Resort, Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. Commissioners present at the meeting were: Sean Parks, Vice Chairman; Timothy I. Sullivan; and Leslie Campione. Others present were: Barbara F. Lehman, Chief Deputy Clerk, County Finance, and Susan Boyajan, Deputy Clerk.
INVOCATION and pledge
Mr. Donnell gave the Invocation, led the Pledge of Allegiance, and asked for a moment of silence for Mr. John Brandeburg, who passed away on Sunday, September 7.
question and answer session
Ms. Mandy Wettstein, Marketing Director of Appleseed Marketing, acted as moderator and briefly explained the rules for the meeting, keeping questions to 30 seconds from the public and also giving each Commissioner two minutes to respond to each question. She added that each Commissioner would have three minutes to give an opening statement.
Commr. Parks commented that he appreciated everything that his fellow commissioners were doing to make this county better and looked forward to the budget process, although it is stressful at times because of the very hard decisions they were facing. He assured everyone that he is working on making sure that they are getting the best value possible for their tax dollars, which is something that is very important to him, and he related that he asks the County Manager to justify all expenses and to start from zero dollars. He pointed out that he takes the Lake County Economic Action Plan very seriously, and he encouraged everyone to read it, noting that Commr. Campione lead the effort for that a couple of years ago. He elaborated that he looks at the Economic Action Plan when he makes decisions on the budget as well as other kinds of day-to-day decisions. He stated that he had put together a simple proposal that he believes would enable them to address some budget issues, not put things off in the future, and still be sensitive to their tax dollars. He specified that his plan included utilizing the full $5.7 million out of the penny sales tax to service debt in the general fund by cutting the third and fourth floors of the Courthouse project, and he would cover the other ideas in his plan later in the meeting, since he was running out of time to speak.
Commr. Campione commented that she has been the lone Commissioner who has stated that she does not believe that a property tax increase is the right thing to do in Lake County right now, and she opined that a local government’s policies and regulations and their attitude towards job creation have a direct correlation on the local economy, including the unemployment rate, the cost of housing, the disposable income available in the private sector to buy goods and services locally, and the ability of the private sector to engage in not-for-profit fundraising activities, such as raffle tickets or events. She elaborated that this type of disposable income could really be affected as the economy declines. She related that the local government’s ability to efficiently provide services at the best value possible by eliminating duplication, waste, and unnecessary or inflated cost without compromising the service levels will result in a lower tax rate than a government that wastes money and overcharges its residents. She opined that raising taxes in a weak economy will make the economy weaker by taking money out of the private sector and moving it to the public sector, which could in turn result in property values and sales tax revenues going down, causing another increase in taxes to make up the revenue needed to afford to provide services to the residents, which is the start of a vicious cycle. She explained that she is opposed to this tax increase, because she believes that they would be at the beginning of that cycle if they do not say “no” right now.
Commr. Sullivan mentioned that this is the second time he has worked and voted on the budget, since he is a fairly new County Commissioner, and he stated that his belief rested in between the statements made by the other two Commissioners who previously spoke. He related that one of his concerns was that 70 percent of the revenues that come into the County as ad valorem are from homeowners, and they are trying to attract businesses and small businesses to Lake County to make up that difference, but having an 18 percent rate increase is not a way to attract businesses and would hurt the vast majority of their citizens. He pointed out, however, that he also does not believe that they could continue the practices of the past of taking out of their reserves to balance the budget since 2004-2005, specifying that they have drawn that revenue base from $33 million down to about $7 million. He commented that they had to work together as a Commission to figure out what the most important things are that they have to do to spend taxpayer dollars and make sure those services are meeting the needs of their community. He noted that they actually lowered the 18 percent increase to 11 percent during their last session, although he feels there is still more work to be done, but he expressed doubts about getting to a zero-based budget without putting things off that would need to be done in the near future.
Ms. Wettstein explained that although all of the questions are normally asked to all of the Commissioners unless specifically directed to just one of them, the next question from Mr. Don Marx of Mount Dora was specifically directed to Commr. Campione, and she read the question aloud which stated, “There is a high difference between 18 percent and zero; what is the major difference between your perspective and the other Commissioners’?”
Commr. Campione noted that she passed out a handout to everyone of a PowerPoint presentation that she has been working on which answered that question. She explained that she starts with the premise that the $5.74 million that comes in from penny sales tax money can and should be used to pay debt service on the new judicial complex in Tavares. She also asserted that the $12.9 million shortfall that has been predicted in the General Fund budget for 2015 is actually for new spending, and her position is that they would have a balanced budget if they go back to the spending of 2014 and use the infrastructure sales tax for the debt service on the judicial complex, without the necessity of a tax increase. She specified that the $5.74 million added to all of the new items that she outlined in her handout total about $7.5 million, including $3.6 million for the Sheriff’s budget.
Mr. Bill Anderson, a resident of Leesburg, asked how much money has been reduced from the Lake County budget since 2008 and how many employees have been cut. He also asked whether the Sheriff had three helicopters.
Commr. Campione responded that they were told that there were 159 full-time employment positions that were reduced from 2007 to 2014, but her research showed that 110 of those positions were in the Growth Management Department when she compared the CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report) from 2007 to the CAFR from 2014, noting that those employees were hired during the housing boom. She commented that there was a net difference of 23 less employees in 2014 than in 2007 as a result of adding employees in some departments and cutting them in others, so she does not agree that there has been a massive reduction in spending. She added that there were a couple of very large-ticket items that took a large chunk of the budget, including the radio system.
Commr. Sullivan commented that the key is making sure the County is taking care of the employees that they have, and the enterprise fund in the building department basically carries itself and was a different budget. He noted that they have cut a number of positions, but they have not seen the same type of downsizing in the constitutional officers’ budgets, which make up 60 percent of their budget.
Commr. Parks pointed out that the issue of expansive government is very important to all three of the Commissioners who were present that day, and they had 215 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees out of the general fund, which was the same number the County had in 1996. He added that there were more than 100,000 more residents in Lake County than there were in 1996, and there will be a need at times to add staff to meet the level of service that would be needed. He opined that most of their employees do a great job and are currently multi-tasking, and he noted that they were doing more with less. He commented that although the County makes mistakes and there is a lot they need to improve, they are headed in the right direction.
Mr. Bud Beucher from Howey-in-the-Hills commented that the five Commissioners are employed by him and the taxpayers for the primary job of running County government. He asked whether they feel they have prepared themselves properly to have a discussion about budgets; are prepared to stand by the earlier conversations that they have had, which in some cases were in support of 18 percent and other cases in support of zero; and are willing to be flexible in their approach to their opinion. He pointed out that although the Sheriff is their largest cost, the Board gets to look at only two pages of budgetary information from that entity, and he asked whether they feel that is right. He added that EMS has increased their payroll by approximately $600,000 as well as an additional 15.1 percent for retirement.
Commr. Parks responded that he is prepared to be flexible and believes this to be an ongoing budget process. He added that public opinion and inquiry are very important. He stated that although he is one of the Commissioners who originally set the millage rate at 18 percent, the rest of his proposal includes cutting the entire $5.71 million from the third and fourth floor of the courthouse project and putting in only paint and carpet, using the savings from that to apply to the debt service, delete the economic development incentives of $400,000, transfer $500,000 from the solid waste closure fund to cover the cost of the fuel remediation that they have agreed to take care of, and use an additional $300,000 out of the solid waste reserve, which would put the tax rate increase at around 10 percent. He summarized that his proposal would only affect one project, which was the courthouse, as opposed to the current proposal on the table which affects multiple projects coming out of the sales tax revenue. He remarked that the Board gets more than the two pages of budget explanation from the Sheriff, which he would elaborate more on later, and he added that any Commissioner could ask the Sheriff any question and get details about his budget at any point. He concluded that he is prepared to continue to move forward.
Commr. Sullivan responded that EMS gets about 43,000 calls a year, and the number of ambulances and personnel they have has caused an increase in expenses, since employees have had to work overtime to cover that due to a loss of employees. He elaborated that one of the issues they need to look at and that he will take before the Board is an operational study to make sure that they were efficiently running their EMS system and find other ways to do things. He also noted that they were only collecting about 54 percent of the cost of their services because of reimbursement issues from Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance, noting that one of the increases is a staff member who will follow through to make sure they were increasing those collections, which would reduce the tax burden.
Commr. Campione stated that she does not intend to be too flexible and commented that the people of Lake County trusted the Commissioners as conservatives to figure out a way to live within their means. She opined they were at a point where they should not have to dip into their reserves or raise taxes if they hold the line on spending and find some other efficiencies or shift their priorities to put their money where everyone believes it should be, and they will find a way to make that happen if they start with the premise that they would do that. She added that they could keep their spending level and make some good decisions about using the debt service on the Judicial Center and then look again at efficiencies in order to free up some money for other things, such as the parks system, but she does not think they should raise taxes to do it.
Mr. Steve Jennelle, a resident of Eustis, asked why they do not establish a budget plan where they start with the end result and work backwards by identifying the services the citizens of Lake County desire and what it would cost to make sure the revenues equal that.
Commr. Sullivan opined that the budgetary process this year was not as effective as the way they did it last year, partially because they did not anticipate some of the shortfalls until the last minute, such as the issue resulting from the EMS revenues unexpectedly falling off drastically the second quarter of this year. He commented that he liked Mr. Jennelle’s idea, noting that many people believe libraries to be an important part of the services they provide, and the Board hears from citizens if they discuss cuts to libraries. He indicated that he was not opposed to working harder on the budget and being more flexible, since the 18 percent is a result of them not working hard enough to get it down. He noted that they reduced the 18 percent increase to 11.3 percent, which was a result of compromises and input.
Commr. Campione commented that Mr. Jennell had an excellent idea which she believed was an appropriate way to approach the budget process. She elaborated that she believed that it meant setting their priorities and working with only the money that was available, cutting some areas if necessary in order to fund higher priorities, and recognizing that the worst thing they could do for their economy is raise the tax rate. She related that all of the calls taken by EMS are either paid for by private insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid, or the individual is uninsured; and the goal should be to decrease the taxpayer subsidies as much as possible to fund the EMS system and look at efficiencies and response times.
Commr. Parks also agreed with Mr. Jennell’s idea, noting that it supported something he mentioned earlier, and he responded that they should start with their priorities of what they wanted or needed in their community by listening to all of their constituents and budget accordingly. He noted that they could budget off of a zero percent tax rate by making some serious programmatic cuts, emphasizing that it does not just consist of $12.9 million in new spending but things that have been put off for years, such as funding for basic operational IT equipment and servers, and they have a plan to phase that in over a number of years rather than all at once. He assured everyone that all of the Commissioners have been very conservative and trying not to get themselves too deep taking on new projects. He noted that although the three Commissioners present had nothing to do with the courthouse project, that was a legitimate issue and an expenditure that they were paying for to this day. He concluded that they had to balance the priorities of the community with what could be a devastating tax increase as well.
Mr. Vance Jochim, a resident of Tavares, stated that over half of the County’s budget is made up of the funding for the Sheriff and constitutional officers, and he has made recommendations over the years for performance audits and that the Sheriff publish details of his budget online available for all to see. He mentioned that he has also made recommendations that there be a peer review which compares his cost for different departmental areas and services to those of other peer counties selected by an objective group which does not have a bias, but he does not see any of that happening. He asked why the Board approves the Sheriff’s budget without demanding analysis on a detailed level of his budget like they do in their workshops for their own departments.
Commr. Parks responded that there are financial audits done of the Sheriff’s budget and suggested that the Sheriff be asked whether he would be willing to do an audit that Mr. Jochim recommends to him, noting that he could not answer that question for him. He added that after analyzing some benchmarking with other Sheriff’s Departments, he has learned some broad-based information such as the fact that although Alachua County has 50,000 people less than Lake, their Sheriff’s Department contains 900 employees with a budget of about $80 million whereas Sheriff Gary Borders only has 245 sworn deputies and 600 total employees; and Osceola County has a $60 million budget which does not include control of the jail, although they are a smaller county than Lake. He also mentioned that he looks at how effective the Sheriff’s programs are and whether he is proactive on crime when he analyzes his budget and has come to the conclusion that the Sheriff is effective and proactive. He commented, however, that there could be other questions that could be asked of the Sheriff and encouraged him to do that. He pointed out that any of the Commissioners could talk to Sheriff Borders at any time.
Commr. Campione stated that she wanted to address comments that were made about devastating cuts that would have to be made and things that would have to be put off, starting at one of the initial budget presentations the Board received which stated that the Board would have to delay or delete projects if the millage rate was not increased, including South Lake Park, 40 percent reductions to departments, no raises, cuts of grants and incentive programs, closing of libraries, and delay of the Astatula Fuel Remediation project. She related that she received calls and emails from residents as a result of that warning which created a crisis by giving the impression that they had no other choice but to cut those items out of the budget; however, she noted that she was very much opposed to a budget process where there seems to be posturing and strategic moves in order to create an impression. She commented that process was very important and opined that there needed to be some improvement in the amount of information that flows back and forth in a public setting, although private meetings were also good.
Commr. Sullivan responded that he does not have operational control of the Sheriff, and all he has is budgetary control. He noted that they get a lot of input from the Sheriff, although the process could be better and should take care of how they review the budgets so that they have a base from which to start from to evaluate if an increase is warranted or not. He opined that they would have to show some political fortitude to do that, but he did indicate that he believed that the Sheriff had a good track record and had cut his budget six percent the last two years, although it looks like he is making it up during this upcoming year.
Mr. Ray Celaya, a resident of Howey-in-the-Hills, asked what technology the County has implemented in the last seven years to reduce the number of employees while maintaining the services they provide.
Commr. Campione pointed out that the Clerk of Courts had a reduction of 17 employees in his workforce between 2007 and 2014, which she believes is a testament to new technology that was implemented by the Clerk of Courts such as efiling and online filing. She also pointed to the County’s own permitting process using an online system for filing of building permits and commercial site plans which allows for more efficiency in those processes as an example of an area where they were seeing an improvement as a result of technology.
Commr. Parks commented that the online permitting to streamline that process was something that was very important to him when he was first elected, and he emphasized that Lake County has actually been recognized as a leader in the state for online permitting for commercial building, which will save money in the future due to less staff that will be needed to do that. He added that the pet data registration was added as a result of an audit which showed that the County needed to correct the way it did the animal registrations, and he elaborated that it is now outsourced and done online, which will streamline that process and possibly generate some additional revenue to help them meet the level of service needed for Animal Services.
Commr. Sullivan related that they put PBL data tracking on all of their public safety apparatus such as ambulances to make sure they were responding to the right area and were not experiencing redundant coverage in specific areas as they work closer with the cities to try to coordinate through the ISBA process to make those services more efficient, and they have instituted online books in the library system to cut down on the number of personnel needed, which is the largest cost for the County. He explained that even though there is a cost for that technology, it will be a lot less expensive than personnel.
Commr. Campione elaborated that the tracking devices allow the dispatchers to see exactly where the unit is and can send the closest unit, whereas they did not have that capability before, and noted that the same dispatch system calls out fire and ambulances, which can work together to get to the event. She added that about 90 percent of Lake County firefighters are medics, and the tracking devices are a great example of something they approved that is providing a much better service to the people of Lake County.
Mr. Judy Farrance, a resident of Howey-in-the-Hills, asked whether the millage rates will drop when property values begin increasing again.
Commr. Parks responded that they hopefully would do a rollback in that case, but they have been spending out of reserves and putting things off as long as they could in prior years. He assured her that he does not want to go through the process of looking at raising millage rates again at all, and his philosophy all along has been to do a rollback and possibly more when values increase.
Commr. Sullivan related that overall property values are down about 38 percent from five or six years ago, and they took money out of the reserves to help balance that budget. He commented that he absolutely agrees that if they can balance the budget without raising taxes, they should do a rollback, and hopefully they will be able to do that in the next few years, especially if their economic development initiatives result in bringing in quality jobs, which would help the tax base. He pointed out that about 78 percent of the County’s homes are in the Save Our Homes program, which limits the increase in value to 3 percent a year.
Commr. Campione commented that she believed it was a great question, but she was concerned that elected officials will have other projects they will want to do with increased revenue. She opined that although this was a time in the history of Lake County when they need to be figuring out how to make this work without increasing their taxes, they could not do that, so she had doubts about whether their elected officials are going to roll back the tax rate during good times after they increased it. She noted that they have spent the last four years trying to diversify their tax base, bring companies to Lake County, and be pro-business, but in one instance they ruined all of that good work when they announced that there will be an 18-percent tax increase, which is hard for her to fathom. She was concerned that they will not be able to roll back the rate if it becomes hard to attract companies to the area who will go to other counties seeking lower tax rates.
Mr. Edd Holder from Tavares stated that each major in the Sheriff’s Department makes about $110,000 per year and retires after 30 years of service with $2.5 million, but there is not a business in Lake County that would put in one-fourth of that amount for an employee that retired from their organization. He asked how the Board could look at the Sheriff’s budget containing only two pages, which is all that is given out to the public, and not asking for more information from that agency, and expressed disappointment in the Board for allowing that situation. He opined that all of the businesses in the room have taken a 50 percent cut in revenue in the last six years, and he asked why the Board could not cut their budget by 10 percent.
Commr. Sullivan pointed out that the state retirement program that all of their law enforcement and firefighters are part of is mandated, but he believed they should focus on looking at the total picture regarding employee benefits rather than just looking at salary.
Commr. Parks related that he had asked the Sheriff that question directly, and he pointed out that they have the ability to ask the Sheriff questions in more detail than the two-page explanation of the budget on the website. He commented that he agrees that the Sheriff should have more public meetings to discuss the budget, although he knows that the Sheriff has meetings in retirement communities around the county, which could possibly be a forum for questions regarding this issue. He added that he appreciates the desire for more openness and transparency regarding that and noted that he addressed the large qualitative factors and measure of the value that they are receiving previously at this meeting.
Commr. Campione commented that they have a great Sheriff’s department which she believes everyone will agree does a great job and pointed out that their crime rate is very low, which makes it a sensitive topic for them to delve into the details and intricacies of how the Sheriff runs his operations. She related that she believes they could not fund a specific budget request by any particular agency when there is not enough money to fund it.
Mr. Mark Fisher, a resident of Mount Dora, opined that he does not know whether everyone agrees that the Sheriff is doing a good job, and he related that he sent a letter to each Commissioner in which he set forth six specific requests of them dealing with the CAFR. He asked whether the Commissioners read them and believe whether the steps he has suggested are acceptable and what they would do to implement those, since he believed that the budget process for the upcoming year is not satisfying a lot of people.
Commr. Campione responded that although she saw that he sent an email that day, she has not had a chance to read through it, but she believed it was focused on process. She assured him that he makes a good point that they need to move forward in the future to get information and review information transparently, and she commented that all of the Commissioners need to work together as the final decider on the millage rate and the funding of the requested budgets that come in and be unified on decisions of taxing and spending as a conservative board to only spend what they bring in, including refusing funding requests from any constitutional officer if they do not have the money to grant those requests. She summarized that they have to live within their means.
Commr. Parks related that he also saw the letter come in but has not read it completely yet, although he assured Mr. Fisher that he would do everything he could to accommodate what he was requesting as well as following up to discuss that with him in the future.
Commr. Sullivan replied that he appreciated the references to state statutes, and they could follow through to make sure they are getting the correct information and pass that directly to the Sheriff and his budget personnel.
Mr. Bennett Walling, a resident of Leesburg, asked how they would go about staying in the black and out of the red as stewards of their money and the county if this was a private business which could not raise the prices.
Commr. Sullivan responded that he made specific recommendations at the last budget hearing about things they could do to reduce to budget, including cutting or delaying the South Lake Park project, although that was unpopular with a lot of South Lake residents, as well as other projects that would make sense operationally. He elaborated that one of his concerns about building new parks was the cost to operate and maintain those parks after they are opened and commented that he believes they could find some areas where they could make changes.
Commr. Parks opined that they need to run government with businesslike principles, although government is not in the business of making a profit, and they have to make sure to get the best value for the things that they provide to make sure it is as efficient an expenditure as possible, which is his mission. He added that they need to aggressively pursue an opportunity to eliminate duplication of services between cities and counties, although it is an uphill battle politically to work, communicate, and connect with city officials in order to do that. He clarified that the South Lake Park was not something they would be spending money on anytime soon, and he has supported keeping that in as a $1.25 million expenditure so that someday they had an opportunity to work with the cities and private parties to put a facility there using penny sales tax money. He also pointed out that the South Lake Park was not just a park for local children to play and to provide local ball fields, but was very much a plan for economic development, and there was an opportunity to use TDC tax dollars for that facility. He opined that they will be able to show in the future that it will be a good investment which will bring sales tax and heads-and-beds tax dollars into the county, providing an economic and service need.
Commr. Campione went over some of her presentation showing the economic impact of a millage increase on some of their larger employers, and she related that Century Link will see an increase of $93,000 on their tax bill as a result of the increase and that Duke Energy will see an increase of $180,000, commenting that those costs will be passed on to the consumer. She commented that she does not understand how they could talk about amenities such as parks from the standpoint of economic development when they were increasing the costs to their businesses, and she opined that parks should be phased in when things are going well and they could afford to do so and maintain them rather than in the current fragile economy.
Mr. Michael Levine, a resident of Clermont, noted that the Sheriff is a large part of the County’s budget but that they did not have access to it. He asked whether there is a formula for determining how many law enforcement officers are needed in Lake County and whether the 11 city police departments are part of the reconciliation of how large the Sheriff’s Department should be.
Commr. Parks replied that there were different standards or rules of thumb that law enforcement uses that the Sheriff could probably discuss at length if asked about it. He referred to an article about a police department in rural Louisiana that referenced one deputy or officer for 1,000 people, and he pointed out that Sheriff Borders currently has about 265 sworn deputies, which would be one officer for more than 1,000 people, including some but not all of the cities that are contracted with the Sheriff. He further related that the level of service in the urban areas such as Clermont, Eustis and Leesburg would probably be greater, and he suggested that he also ask the Sheriff and the Chiefs of Police of the cities what number they use.
Mr. Levine indicated that he has researched this issue online. He commented that the Board was responsible for the budget and expressed concern that they were accepting non-compliance from the Sheriff to their requests.
Commr. Campione related that she believes the public should talk to the Sheriff about their concerns, and she opined that having standards in place would result in a much improved budget process. She expressed a belief that they should take a hard line as Commissioners if they cannot fund a certain amount of the budget that is submitted and to agree upon parameters on how they will judge whether the funding is at the level it should be or not. She added that she believed the crime rate is a very good indication of whether money should be added to the budget and believed it was not needed at this point.
Commr. Sullivan stated that public safety has been a topic they have dealt with during his two years on the Board, but they have not gotten into the details of those issues; however, there has been the feeling among the citizenry lately that it is time to take a hard look at public service and public safety to see if there are efficiencies that have not been done at this point for the Sheriff’s Department, EMS, and the fire departments. He added that they needed to do that as they get further into this process.
Ms. Louise Grossman, a resident of Clermont, pointed out that average citizens cannot ask others for money and asked why they were funding nonprofit organizations that were basically hobbies for people. She opined that the Commissioners were hired to say “no” when the going gets tough, and she does not feel she should support someone else’s hobby with her tax money when she might not be able to afford her own hobby of showing dogs.
Commr. Campione assured Ms. Grossman that the Board tries to balance the fact that there are a lot of different interests that people pursue in Lake County, such as the 4-H program which is very beneficial to young people, with a limited budget. She noted that when they have a budget cycle like this one which looks at cuts to some of those programs, many residents attend the meeting to protest those cuts, and she encouraged those in attendance at this meeting to attend the public hearing on Tuesday evening, September 9, at 5:00. She assured Ms. Grossman that most of the programs they fund are primarily educational and have a real benefit, and she believes they should continue to fund those within the parameters of not raising taxes.
Commr. Sullivan reported that he voted to cut the Master Gardener program last year, and he stated that they need to hone the budget down by looking at the core services they provide, although that might not make a lot of residents happy.
Commr. Parks pointed out that the Master Gardener program and the garden center has been cut back continuously, and the entire Board has indicated that that was something that may not be able to be funded in the future. He related that private citizens are involved to try to secure other funding sources, but it is something that they should continue to keep watching, no matter how small it is.
Mr. Joe Rudderow, a resident of Leesburg, opined that the Commissioners were “passing the buck” by indicating that they should ask someone else about a concern, since the Board was responsible for passing the budget. He stated that they are referred to the state every time the issue of defined benefit versus defined contribution comes up, and he opined that defined benefit pension plans are running them into bankruptcy. He asked for suggestions about what they would do about switching from a defined benefit versus a defined contribution pension plan.
Commr. Sullivan replied that only 8 percent of private corporations in this day and age have defined benefit plans, and he commented that one of the fallacies of some of the government types of plans is that some employees are also given a “bailout” towards the end of the program, which is not really what a defined benefit plan was set up to do. He suggested that they could ask the state to cut that option out, and he also pointed out that although the average American today lives to about age 83, the defined benefit plans were originally set up for people to live to age 65. He mentioned that they could put this issue on their legislative priorities to move the state legislature to amend the bailout option.
Commr. Campione pointed out that the municipalities in Florida are very different than the County government. She also noted that the Sheriff’s operations are autonomous from theirs by Florida law, and their only true power was to say “no” to a budget request; however, she believes they can improve this process so that they could have these discussions, and the public can help them to do that. She related that County employees by law must participate in FRS (the Florida Retirement System), and the only way to get around that is to outsource particular programs, noting that they have set up a quasi-organization for EMS which resulted in EMS staff not technically being County employees. She elaborated that they can outsource other parts of County government such as parks and maintenance to avoid bringing those employees into the FRS, which she believes is the wave of the future.
Commr. Parks reiterated that outsourcing is a very good option for them, and he noted that he looked at outsourcing at least part of their library system last year. He also opined that there was a problem nationwide regarding those kinds of benefits, and he believed the County should be open to at least looking at outsourcing to see what they could do across the county and have public discussions about it. He commented that he loved problem solving and that his heart was into what he was trying to do to serve the residents of the county, adding that he was open to suggestions. He suggested forming an efficiency committee of experts in the business community to advise the Board of things they might not be seeing.
Mr. Alan Winslow, a resident of Tavares, asked if they have changed their priorities, noting that he was encouraged three years ago when he believed the Board recognized that Lake County needs a greater industrial and commercial tax base and made some major commitments to improve that situation. He commented that as a business owner, he does not care much about how many parks and libraries the County has, but he would be very alarmed if he thought the County had an unstable government lacking in planning and leadership, and he added that an 18 percent increase in taxes scares him greatly. He opined that the County has to sacrifice the fringes if they were serious about expanding and diversifying their tax base.
Commr. Parks replied that he does not think they have changed their priorities, and he pointed out that the Lake County Economic Action Plan (EAP) has been put in place and approved unanimously by the Board. He assured everyone that there were relatively no new expenditures, that this Board was very conservative, and that they scrutinize and analyze every project and expense in great detail. He emphasized that the EAP does not state that they will never have another tax increase in Lake County again under absolutely any circumstances, but does reference building a business-friendly environment, which the Board is trying to do, working with municipalities, and protect and improve their quality of life. He noted that they were trying to achieve a balance, although he does not like an 18 percent increase, but assured everyone that they were working to reduce that in a way that would not put off future expenditures so that they would not have to go through this again. He mentioned that economic development studies done by the state’s Chamber Alliance reference the things that are important for businesses to be relocated or to stay in place and grow, and taxes are further down the list of important factors below crime and education, with quality of life being another important factor, noting that there are other factors that go into their plan to be more stable.
Commr. Campione noted that the Commissioners are only allowed to talk to one another about County issues during advertised public meetings, per the Sunshine Law. She opined that the Board’s priorities have changed by taking away the business friendly environment as a result of raising the cost of doing business, which she believed also sends a message that the Board is not serious about the EAP. She expressed hope that the Commissioners will rethink their position before Tuesday night’s meeting about how the proposed tax increase will affect their ability to grow and diversify their Lake County economy.
Commr. Sullivan indicated that he does not think their priorities have changed, noting that they are funding an economic development department that is trying to bring businesses to Lake County; however, he believes they need to coordinate better with their municipalities who provide utility services to bring some of those businesses in, which he thinks they are currently doing. He also stated that their legislative priorities also show that they are trying to bring in quality businesses by helping the school system get funding to provide a work force, such as a manufacturing program at the local Vo Tech. He pointed out that he is trying hard to get the tax increase down from 18 to 11 percent, although he believes they still have some work to do.
Mr. Andrew Nutt from Tavares asked whether the County currently has a plan to increase the budget with regards to utilizing some of the County-owned properties which is reserved for future parks and schools and currently is not taxed.
Commr. Sullivan responded that one thing that would help with their budgetary process would be to cut down on the leases the County has by utilizing the capital outlay dollars to build facilities instead and to work better with the constitutional officers on some of the things that has been previously mentioned. He also commented that they needed to do a better job with the process of how they move forward to provide services such as parks to keep in mind the cost of the operational side of maintaining those parks.
Commr. Campione noted that some of the property Mr. Nutt was referring to was bought with the PLAAC money (Public Lands Acquisition) as a result of a referendum, and they could not sell those lands and use those funds for something other than that same purpose, although they could sell some of those properties and try to find other property that would be a better use of the funds, such as property that would give them access to the Wekiva River. She stated that she would be in favor of looking for opportunities to divest themselves of land that does not have the kind of environmental attributes and value that people had in mind when they passed that referendum and to be more strategic about the properties they operate as parks in active and passive areas.
Commr. Parks noted that there is a list of about 80 properties that the County owns other than the PLAAC lands, and he commented that they need to make sure there is value in holding those properties and that it fits within the County’s plans when making a decision of whether to retain it. He clarified that his proposal for the South Lake Park is just to keep the $1.25 million allocation from the penny sales tax in place, and he was hoping to partner with the cities such as Groveland and Clermont as well as private industry, such as Montverde Academy, to form a public-private partnership to do something on that site in the future that will draw economic development. He specified that one tournament alone is expected to bring in $10 million in economic impact to Lake County, which will result in an increase in revenue from a source other than property tax.
Mr. Doug Duerr from Tavares asked what the core services are that the Board has identified, which he believed would drive the determination of the priorities, as well as what were the priorities that are driving the budget discussions.
Commr. Sullivan answered that public safety, which includes EMS, fire, and law enforcement are obviously the number one priority, which is why he does not think there is political fortitude to challenge the Sheriff on his budget, and another priority is economic growth. He also pointed out that the cost of Medicaid went up for the County from $2.3 million to $4.3 million in just the short period of time that he has been on the Board, noting that an increase of that type is not in the budget, and he was concerned about next year as they deal with that growth caused by Obamacare.
Commr. Parks added that core services are public safety infrastructure as well, noting that the founding fathers in the early days of this country knew the importance of infrastructure, illustrated by the fact that they spent money on the Erie Canal and road systems, including the first turnpike system, knowing that those things were an investment that helped them grow as a nation. He added that he also considers economic development and things on the EAP that they have agreed are necessary for their goal of diversifying their economy as core services, noting that entrepreneurs are concerned about infrastructure, crime, schools, and quality of life.
Commr. Campione responded that public safety as previously mentioned is their number one priority, and other core services include transportation and infrastructure. She suggested that the Commissioners look at the two-page outline included in the budget and consider whether they need to change some of them, noting that they include multi-jurisdictional cooperation, taking the lead in facilitating countywide cooperation across all entities, making the economy of Lake County strong and diversified, having high-end business centers strategically placed along major corridors, and attracting targeted industries that would recognize Lake County as business-friendly. She pointed out that Lake County does something very unique which she believed should be embraced as a model for other counties, which was to partner with not-for-profit organizations in Lake County that provide services rather than having their own social service type departments, which was basically outsourcing those services, by coordinating efforts and providing those organizations with a small amount of grant seed money for victims of crime, veterans, and at-risk children. She opined that the Board needed to have a dialogue about quality of life and what it means within the parameters of the core services and what the public wants them to be doing.
Mr. Edward Williams from Howey-in-the-Hills commented that the new trash containers that were delivered to his house were expensive for the County and asked about a $3.6 million loss in revenue due to solid waste services.
Commr. Campione pointed out that she and Commr. Sullivan voted against the trash contracts, noting that their long-standing relationship with Covanta was severed, resulting in the loss of ash that Covanta was bringing to the landfill and loss of the electrical revenues from Covanta. She explained that they were losing those revenues because they chose to go to a cheaper disposal site, and she believes that the assessments charged for solid waste are not taking into account the actual cost of operating that system. She expressed a hope to salvage that situation and make it work as best as they could.
Commr. Sullivan mentioned that he was on the losing end of changing those contracts, and he believed they did not look at the big picture. He explained that one of the large containers is supposed to be for recycling and one for regular pickup in order to encourage more recycling, which would reduce the amount of garbage going to the landfill, reducing their cost in the long run. He assured everyone that the Board will be doing more work on solid waste as they move forward to determine what to do with their landfill.
Commr. Parks stated that he respectfully disagreed and was still very confident in his decision. He explained that the $3.6 million is left in place for existing operations of the landfill, the service centers, and reserve; and he pointed out that the collection service was put out to bid and went through a two-year process with a committee, and they got the best deal that they could for the residents. He commented that raising the assessment to cover the cost of that would mean that unincorporated County residents would be paying for residents living in the cities to use the service centers, hazardous waste program, and the landfill. He assured everyone that the disposal option is the cheapest option for them, and more of that money will be put back into a reserve the more they recycle. He related that although there will probably be a few small issues that will come up as they continue to implement this program, he believes it is something that will be good for Lake County.
Ms. Wettstein asked for closing remarks from the Commissioners.
Commr. Sullivan thanked everyone for being there and stated that he truly believed public input is very valuable to them as they make decisions moving forward. He commented that they have to look at the big picture as the managers of the dollars that the residents provide, and they have to make sure they are utilizing those dollars in the most effective manner. He also related that while there is still some work to be done on the budget, they have to recognize what the priorities are, noting that he has heard some great ideas at this meeting about what they need to look at, noting that he was willing to have a dialogue with anyone who contacts him with an interest in doing so.
Commr. Campione encouraged everyone present to come to the budget public hearing on Tuesday, September 9 at 5:05 p.m. at the Administration Building to balance out those that will speak in favor of a tax increase in order to assure the funding of a particular program and to speak out about what this will do to their economy and the negative effect this will have on businesses and residents. She also requested that everyone look at the information that she provided, which shows that there are 51 counties with a lower tax rate than Lake and only 15 that have a higher rate, and she opined that they also have one of the highest tax bills in the area, despite claims of lower millage rates.
Commr. Parks also encouraged everyone to come to the budget hearing, stating that their input is very important to him. He assured everyone that he takes the millage increase and budget issues very seriously and that imposing any kind of tax rate increase is not something that he wanted to do, since he is very sensitive to what high taxes could do to a business. He commented that he is very confident in believing that they need to follow their Economic Action Plan and need to take that plan into account when considering this budget. He also encouraged everyone to visit his website at www.seanslake.com and to look at his previously-mentioned proposal that he will put on the website, which would lower the millage increase from 18 to 11 percent. He concluded that he enjoyed working with his fellow Commissioners.
There being no further business to be brought to the attention of the Board, the meeting was adjourned at 8:15 p.m.
jimmy conner, chairman
NEIL KELLY, CLERK