A special MEETING OF THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
March 17, 2015
The Lake County Board of County Commissioners met in a special session on Tuesday, March 18, 2015 at 6:30 p.m., at the LSCC Health and Sciences Building, Leesburg, Florida, for participation in a Town Hall Forum on social issues. Commissioners present at the meeting were Sean Parks and Leslie Campione. Others present were: Chief Robert Hicks, Leesburg; Dan Robuck III, City of Leesburg Commissioner; Marc Dodd, Lake County School Board; Barbara F. Lehman, Chief Deputy Clerk, County Finance; and Victoria Bartley, Deputy Clerk.
Ms. Debbie MacIntyre, Executive Director of the Be Free Lake Coalition, welcomed everyone to the meeting and explained that she worked in the community to dispense information about substance abuse, and as she believes most of our social problems in Lake County come from substance misuse, Dr. Deas has invited her to the social problems class usually every semester to talk about the different social problems that community leaders see. She relayed that the purpose of the forum was to give students the opportunity to meet with some of the newly appointed officials and ask any questions they might have about social problems.
Ms. MacIntyre gave a brief introduction on each of the panel representatives:
Chief Robert Hicks has over twenty-three years of law enforcement experience and is a U.S. Army combat veteran. Prior to becoming Chief of Police for the Leesburg Police Department, he spent over eighteen years with the agency, holding almost every rank and duty assignment within the department. He holds an MBA, a B.A. in Organizational Management, and an A.S. in Criminal Justice. Chief Hicks is a graduate of the Southern Police Institute’s Administrative Officers Course at the University of Louisville and the Certified Public Manager Program at Florida State University. He believes in using Intelligence Led Policing philosophy in combination with active community engagement to better serve the citizens of Leesburg.
Commissioner Dan Robuck III, a resident of Leesburg, was elected as a Leesburg Commissioner this past fall and holds a B.S. in Finance from Florida State University, where he graduated Cum Laude. Currently he is the Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of Ro-Mac Lumber and Supply, Inc. in Leesburg. He is a member of the Leesburg City Council and the Leesburg Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and has served on the Leesburg Partnership Advisory Board Economic Restructuring Committee representing a private sector viewpoint on different issues.
Mr. Marc Dodd was a kindergarten teacher at Grassy Lake Elementary before being elected to the School Board this past November. He ran for School Board because he felt there was a great need to have an educator’s perspective on the board. Prior to teaching, he built a career with the Walt Disney Company as a manager in Park Operations at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Global Park Operations.
Commr. Leslie Campione has a B.A. degree and graduated with honors from the University of Florida College of Law. She has owned her own law practice since 1993 focusing on areas of local government law, environmental law, real property, business, and land use. She has served as the City Attorney for the Town of Lady Lake, the Town of Montverde, and the City of Umatilla. She is a strong proponent of economic development and free market principles and is committed to fostering a climate for positive economic activity, small business ownership, and job creation in Lake County.
Commr. Sean Parks is a Florida native and has a B.S. degree in Environmental Science and an M.S. in Engineering Management from the Florida Institute of Technology. He has completed the Certified County Commissioners Program and earned the Advanced County Commissioner designation this year. He is certified as an urban and regional planner by the American Institute of Certified Planners, is a Qualified Environmental Professional, and has been elected to the Lake County Water Authority. He is an ardent supporter of Economic Development and business friendly initiatives and owns a small consulting practice.
QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION
Dr. Isaac Deas began the forum, asking Chief Hicks what the crime rate in Leesburg was and what types of crime were represented.
Chief Hicks responded that they use the Uniform Crime Reporting System that is used by almost every agency in the country to report crime to the FBI. He explained that the number used for the crime rate is a ratio of crimes per 100,000 residents that is then scaled down to fit the size of the community and that Leesburg’s number is 558 with a population of 22,000 residents. He remarked that to put this in perspective, the entire County’s number is 1,500 with 300,000 residents and their crime rate index is only three times higher than Leesburg’s even with their much larger population size.
Dr. Deas asked the commissioners to explain what a commissioner’s job entails.
Commr. Robuck commented that a city commissioner’s job was more of a part-time occupation compared to that of a County commissioner, but that they met twice a month with various events in between, communicate directly with the city manager who they hire, and set policy that the manager and staff then execute.
Commr. Campione replied that the County commissioner’s job is very similar to that at the city level, except that their jurisdiction is countywide, with five commissioners that are elected by the district where they live. She explained that they set policy on issues that are county related and that some of their duties are designated by law, such as setting the millage rate for property taxes and operating federally-mandated programs with the state and federal money they receive.
Commr. Parks added that a big part of their job was dealing with policy decisions on a monthly basis, managing the $400 million budget, handling land use and Comprehensive Plan decisions, and hearing cases when a Comprehensive Plan or zoning change is requested.
Commr. Campione remarked that there are officers in each county that are considered to be constitutional officers set up by the Constitution of the State of Florida such as the Sheriff, the Supervisor of Elections, the Tax Collector, the Property Appraiser, and the Clerk of Court. She explained that these officers submitted their budgets to the County for review and approval because the BCC is the only entity that can raise taxes if the budget requirements need to be met. She commented that the running of the jail is a County responsibility, and although they could elect to have a private entity do so, they choose to have the Sheriff in charge of it instead.
Dr. Deas asked the Board of Education member for his thoughts on overcrowded classrooms and class size restrictions.
Mr. Dodd replied that it is a challenge, but that the voters had essentially determined the class size amendments for them. He opined that it was difficult to find a cost-effective way to work within those parameters and that the previous School Board had given advice to the Superintendent that it was alright to go over the cap size by a few students if it became so cost ineffective to hire additional teachers. He commented that education is a much more dynamic and energetic learning environment than when he was in school, but the technological resources in the classroom can only be stretched so far, and both space and resources will run out when more students are put in a classroom than it is designed to hold. He added that any teacher will say that the most influential time they have with a student is when it can be spent one-on-one or with a small group and that time is diminished when it has to be spread out with more and more students, so it is a hindrance when the class size amendment is exceeded.
Dr. Deas asked the Police Chief why he believed Leesburg’s reported crime rate is so much higher than that of Eustis and Clermont.
Chief Hicks explained that for at least the last 25 years, the Leesburg crime rate has been significantly higher than both of those communities. He commented that Clermont has had a population boom in the last ten years, though Leesburg has historically had a higher population, and that while many Clermont residents work in Orlando which lowers their population during the day, Leesburg gets much busier during the day, all of which contribute to the crime rate. He mentioned that Lake County as a whole has a lower socioeconomic status than average for the state of Florida, and Leesburg is the lowest in Lake County, which can also impact the crime rate. He noted that they had a lot of the social services that are required to meet the needs of the people stationed in Leesburg, such as a large mental health facility, and so people are coming from other communities into Leesburg to receive either state, federal, or county services.
Dr. Deas inquired of the Commissioners what they have done to improve the efficiency and accountability of local government.
Commr. Robuck answered that he spent a lot of time reading the reports and agenda items that the staff puts out and trying to keep other people informed as to the goings on as well, sometimes via Facebook. He opined that sometimes the Sunshine Law made this challenging as they can only speak to other commissioners about anything that might come before the city commission if it is a publicly noticed meeting, so because of that, if a commissioner posts something on Facebook, he cannot respond or talk about anything until the meeting. He commented that the Sunshine Laws have really made it difficult for the city government. He remarked that a big part of moving forward is broadcasting what the city is doing through social media, where the people are interacting.
Commr. Parks stated that accountability starts with accessibility, and so he has tried to be more accessible, which means putting oneself out in the community to the residents that one serves, in more places than just the BCC Meetings. He remarked that one such way he had done this was with “Coffee Conversations,” which he had done with some of the previously elected School Board members and has plans to bring Mr. Dodd along in the following month, where he went to a local business and residents come and talk to them in an open discussion about whatever they want. He mentioned that he also maintained a website and conducts a phone session once a month called the “Mayors’ Calls” with the five mayors of the cities of South Lake to keep the lines of communication open. He explained that one way of improving efficiency is reducing any duplication of services, such as interlocal and first responder agreements between cities in both North and South Lake Counties. He related that he had formed an efficiency group, which gives him honest feedback and works to generate ideas on what they can do to improve efficiency and provide greater value to the residents. He remarked that he looks at and analyzes the 20-year cost of receiving the numerous grants they receive to determine whether it would cost more money in the long run. He specified that this is information that is needed before making a decision, and that process is now incorporated into what they do as County Commissioners.
Commr. Campione specified that both she and Commr. Parks were committed to the concept of making County government as efficient as possible, and a large part of that is working with the cities to coordinate their efforts, activities, and services. She explained that in regard to public safety, the first individuals to arrive at an accident scene are going to be firefighters with the ambulances following in the event that someone does have to be transferred to the hospital, so they try to coordinate countywide to do that as efficiently as possible. She remarked that the Sunshine Law requires notification of their meetings and is an important, built-in inefficiency because it creates transparency and shows that no deals are being made between officials since it is important to have those discussions in the public realm. She opined that sometimes it is an asset that the law forces them to slow down, as it gives everyone the chance to hear what the issues are and give their input. She commented that what Commr. Parks said about being open to constituents is very important and that she tries to answer whatever email she receives and then follow up with a meeting with whoever wrote it if possible. She related that next week, for example, she had a meeting at the East Lake County Park with residents to discuss strategies to help their park improvements be completed faster. She mentioned that she was also going to attend a Trap, Neuter, and Release public meeting, a program that brings in feral cats and sterilizes them before releasing them back into the wild instead of euthanizing them. She stated that being accessible and accountable was the key to being an effective elected official.
Commr. Parks added that all five County Commissioners would be attending a special meeting in April at the southernmost point of the county in the Four Corners area in order to hear the concerns of the residents there.
Dr. Deas mentioned that he has worked at the same meetings as Commr. Parks and seen him out with the community and that Commr. Campione had spoken at his annual Women’s Conference a few years ago. He commented that it was an asset in any community to know that their elected officials are accessible. He asked Mr. Dodd how he felt about standardized testing as opposed to the FCAT.
Mr. Dodd opined that the current situation with standardized testing had much room for improvement. He remarked that when he was in school, the end of the year tests did not have such high stakes and were just used as an indicator to let parents know where their child stood education-wise and served as one data point to help the school identify what courses may be most appropriate for the student the following year, with no promotion or retention requirements tied to it. He strongly indicated that the formula for utilizing standardized tests as it stands now is unsatisfactory. He explained that these tests run a significant risk of being invalid, that certain companies produce the tests, that they had been paid $5 million to field test the FSAs (Florida Standards Assessments) in Utah, and even though it was found that more than half the students did not perform at a satisfactory level, this is the test they will be administering here this year. He reported that the end of course exams were in every course in elective or core subjects, and it is an incredible burden for any one single school district to create a test to administer for the hundreds of courses they have. He relayed that Lake County has over 500 courses that are offered, so they have partnered with a consortium of other counties to help share the work load, so a science test might come from Hillsborough or a P.E. test might come from Miami-Dade, and the challenge with this is that the courses may look very different between the two counties. He mentioned that in the first round of End of Course exams that came back, some teachers had reported that the highest score in their class was a 48 and in another course it was a 60. He opined that he does not credit that to bad teaching but to a bad test, and he does not understand why the district is not leveraging the part of the statute that states that they can use a principle or teacher selected exam as the End of Course exam. He concluded that these tests seem like an invalid measurement, that there are things we can do as a district to help overcome the inadequacies of the current policies, and that he will continue to bring it up before the Board.
Dr. Deas asked the Police Chief what he saw as the greatest threat to community peace.
Chief Hicks opined that apathy and the combined feeling of hopelessness in the community is the greatest threat, which results in a lack of involvement, because if the community is not involved in reporting crimes, then they do not have a very good chance of combating that crime. He related that apathy also creates a situation where the community believes that crime is just a part of life and do not become involved even when crime becomes more prevalent, which can disrupt the balance of an entire community. He explained that when a community is active and engaged it can make a big difference; for example, they have recently made several substantial property crimes’ arrests based on a community member calling and feeling comfortable enough to report it. He commented that there are 22,000 sets of eyes watching in the community and only 10 on the police force, so the police are more than happy to do the work if the community tells them where to go. He clarified that hopelessness refers to job creation in communities that look at blight and just accept that as a way of being, but they have made some good strides in turning that around.
Dr. Deas asked the Commissioners how much money goes to the prisons as compared to public education.
Commr. Campione explained that they funded the County jail with about $21 million, or about $55 a day for an individual, coming out to about $20,000 to house someone in the jail for a year.
Mr. Dodd confirmed that the Schools’ budget was about $500 million.
Commr. Parks pointed out that there are hidden costs as well, for things like probation officers, deputies, and the city police salaries which need to be taken into account as well in order to answer that question.
Dr. Deas inquired what Mr. Dodd’s response would be to the idea of using school facilities after hours.
Mr. Dodd replied that there already are some instances when school facilities are used for purposes other than school and opined that using a school seems so wholesome and part of a community, and there is much success when the community is engaged within the school. He opined that it was his hope that the district will create more opportunities for people without students in the system to be able to volunteer more easily, such as retired teachers or parents with fully grown children who still wish to be involved with the schools. He commented that he would like to create some partnerships within the community and the schools, though he acknowledged that there would be some security and liability logistics to work out.
Dr. Deas asked the Commissioners what the chances were of establishing a Commission on Poverty for Lake County, a group that will identify specific pockets of poverty and address their needs, and whether there were any plans for expanding public transportation.
Commr. Campione related that she sits as an appointee to the Lake Community Action Agency, which is a community organization that was established under federal law and runs the Head Start programs. She explained that their main mission is identifying and addressing poverty and attempting to break cycles of poverty and dependence on government assistance. She admitted that there are probably opportunities where they could do a better job countywide, because that is their primary organization in Lake County to address poverty. She relayed that one of the things they are proud of in County government is that they try to work closely with non-profit and community organizations that already exist and have particular purposes that meet the needs of the residents without having to increase County government instead. She reported that they try to leverage their dollars by giving funding grants to organizations, including Lake Community Action, Elders Affairs, and Children’s Services, and that those organizations have specific missions, but the County government helps to fund them so that they can operate out in the community to address a lot of their particular social needs and issues. She opined that one should always try to do better and to always be looking at how things are done and question if there is a better way.
Commr. Parks agreed with Commr. Campione that there is always room for improvement and that such a weighty issue would only get better with more discussion. He responded to the question about public transportation by relaying that a new route was being added in South Lake County called Route 50 that will travel from Mascotte into a station designated in Winter Garden with six to eight initial stops. He explained that the concern with starting that route was making sure that they had support from the cities and that it is being funded through Federal 5307 grant money. He remarked that they are working with businesses right now about possibly adding additional stops and stop shelters which would be paid for by the cities, businesses, and anyone else who would like to be along the route. He reported that they had plans to work with the cities of Minneola and Clermont to possibly add further routes along Highway 27 North and South.
Commr. Campione mentioned that as an elected official, she receives complaints from both sides of the issue with some people not wanting their tax dollars to be used for a bus system that they do not believe anyone is using and others wanting to know why the bus is not run more frequently so that people do not have to wait so long, which would result in more people being more likely to use the bus system. She remarked that the service is subsidized and does not pay for itself because the fare does not cover all of the cost involved in operating the system. She explained that they are trying to make it possible for people to get to jobs, school, or buy their groceries using public transportation in order to put money back into the economy, so it is not just about the fare, but the entire network. She mentioned that there is an efficiency side to it as well, because putting in a bus reduces the number of cars on the road as well. She summarized that it is a controversial topic, but they try very hard to find the right balance.
Commr. Robuck commented that they had an upcoming code enforcement meeting, which he feels is loosely related to poverty in Leesburg because there are areas in the community with dilapidated, boarded-up houses which attract a lot of crime. He asserted that until the codes start to be enforced, those areas cannot be cleaned up and have people move into them. He specified that the meeting would cover what the community needs to do to get the codes enforced and what needs to be done to demolish unsafe structures. He opined that a big part of the issue was Leesburg’s very active housing program and that reducing poverty in Leesburg would come as a result of moving people out of rentals and into home ownership. He explained that there is a big issue with rentals in Leesburg, especially transient rentals that attract a high crime population. He commented that if that can be cleaned up, residents can be given assistance in buying a home and that will help to reduce poverty.
Dr. Deas asked the Police Chief his opinion on whether the general public had a good understanding of the duties and responsibilities of a police officer and what is and is not abuse of power.
Chief Hicks commented that if the general public went solely off of what was reported in the media and posted on social media, then they did not because there is almost a complete disconnect between that and reality, but the average citizen off the street had a pretty good understanding of it. He opined that the media doctors their video clips and leaves out things, that putting a resisting person in handcuffs requires physical contact, and that people do not have an understanding what the dynamics of force are. He mentioned that communities do not have the same issues at the same time and so the methods requested to be used in one county will not have the same reception in another, citing the use of tasers in Orange County versus Miami. He remarked that many of the televised police issues occur in places with a higher population and a larger police force where instances of misconduct are going to occur in a higher volume than a place with a significantly smaller police force. He noted that the public opinion of the police force was cyclical and is tied to the economy, mentioning that officers in the 1960s dealt with a very similar social climate where the instances of hate speech were comparable to what is going on today.
Ms. Macintyre inquired if a citizen’s academy was an option for people to learn more about what the police force does in the community.
Chief Hicks responded that both Leesburg and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office currently have one and opined that it was a valuable lesson. He explained that it was a ten week program they try to run at least once a year where all members of the community are invited to meet the staff and get a better understanding of the role of the police.
Commr. Parks remarked that the County had had a citizen’s academy at one time and was hoping to bring it back, as there seems to be interest on the Board of County Commissioners to do so. He commented that it was his hope that young people would get involved as it gives them a chance to meet the County’s different constitutional officers, including the commissioners. He conveyed that even without the program, if any young people wanted to attend a BCC meeting, they would be introduced to the commissioners and the heads of any department that they may be interested in so that they can be involved.
Dr. Deas asked Mr. Dodd why Tavares High School has dropped two school grades.
Mr. Dodd relayed that two high schools are being rezoned in South Lake, and they are discovering an inequity between them, with a huge disparity of resources distribution between the those two schools and some of the schools on the North side. He opined that the County should differentiate their approach among all the schools and make sure that they are providing the resources that schools need to be successful, which meant deviating from the standard allocation formula so that they can provide assistance and aid to the schools that need it. He commented that he would wait to see of the rest of the Board responds to the suggestion as they go into their allocation and budgetary process for the next year. He noted that there was also a disparity of technology distribution among schools.
Dr. Deas inquired whether Mr. Dodd’s children attended public schools and asked him to clarify why or why not.
Mr. Dodd explained that he had four children, two of whom are school aged in third and first grade and that they were both enrolled in a public school. He relayed that his reason is because that it is what the average American can afford, which is why most people send their children to public school. He commented that having been a teacher and his wife currently a teacher meant that his family is very invested in Lake County’s public education, so they could be trusted to fight for improvements.
Dr. Deas addressed the Commissioners, asking if there will be an increase in residential taxes due to construction.
Commr. Robuck responded that if there was construction, taxes would actually be lower, as their taxes predominantly come from property value, and new construction generally has a higher property value than old construction. He explained that the tax rate stays the same, so there are more tax dollars to be gained from a new house than an old house with the same number of people in it, so more taxes can be brought in which could be spread out, and taxes could even potentially be lowered. He relayed that there is a fallacy that new residents are not paying enough impact fees, so the existing ones need to pay for the schools; however impact fees are not paid by retirees or retirement communities. He reported that the retirees do bring in an increase for service, and those services employ younger people who then have kids and do not pay impact fees either, but send their kids to school. He remarked that the problem is that the funding source is not reliable, and they need to find a better way to fund schools, for example through doc stamps which would capture the value any time a house was sold. He concluded that the more construction and the more people that move to Lake County, the lower the tax burden is going to be.
Commr. Campione explained that the Department of Revenue helps them make projections every year to do their budget planning, and they are indicating that because of new construction, they are looking at a five to six percent increase in revenues, so taxes for individual residents will likely come down. She clarified that as revenues go up because of new construction being added to the tax rolls, everyone else’s burden goes down. She opined that a topic for another discussion might be the correlation between things like impact fees to the cost of the house itself, because an impact fee being a certain amount regardless of the value of the house can be a detriment or a deterrent to someone being able to afford a new home.
Commr. Parks commented that more construction is good because it signifies that the economy is growing and, in theory, the taxes will go down. He pointed out that Lake County has a very housing dependent economy, so they are trying to focus on diversifying the economy and concentrating on business growth that will dilute the tax burden by paying more of the tangible property tax and business taxes. Because Lake County was so housing dependent, the recession hit it harder than Orange County for example, that had a much more diversified economy.
Dr. Deas asked the commissioners what the city and county was doing to facilitate a strong local economy and induce business to come to Lake County.
Commr. Robuck answered that they were focused on making it as easy to do business as possible, that they have hired a new economic development director who those businesses can go to when they need things like permits or a special zoning changes to make the move easier. He commented that companies are looking for ease of doing business, which had been an issue in Leesburg and Lake County, rather than for incentives to relocate here.
Commr. Campione remarked that another thing they are doing is trying to work with LSCC and Lake Tech to insure that the job training opportunities they offer are for the types of jobs that are already here in Lake County with the types of businesses that they are attempting to recruit. She specified that they are looking to encourage higher wage jobs to induce the younger generation to stay in Lake County and still be able to afford the type of life they want to live. She mentioned that when a company comes into Lake County, they review the demographics for the county, such as the number of people who graduated college and what skills they have, to see if they would be able to find people to hire in the area. She opined that one of the things County government can do is try to be the bridge between the educators and the business community and to try to identify what skill sets the business community needs, for example helping Lake Tech to add more manufacturing classes, as manufacturing is Lake County’s biggest sector after healthcare.
Commr. Parks encouraged the students in the audience to keep following what the county does with their economic development and economic prosperity, and relayed a recent experience he’d had with site selectors, who believed that Florida has a great business climate. He reported that Lake County was trying to become more business-friendly, and they try to meet with businesses on a regular basis to hear what their concerns are, as business is very relationship oriented. He relayed that according to the site selectors, one of the things that is holding Central Florida back in general is the attachment to Disney and the perception that they are strictly a tourism and low-wage service industry economy. He commented that it was important to change that perception and highlight the County’s true strengths such as manufacturing.
Dr. Deas asked the Police Chief if he believed that the media has focused on the very few incidents of police abuse of power rather than the positive impact of police in our communities.
Chief Hicks replied that the media sensationalizes things and looks for anything that will shock people’s conscience or values to get the attention that will sell newspapers. He commented that it is not very interesting to report on the things most police officers do with their day, such as helping someone change a flat tire.
Dr. Deas asked Mr. Dodd to explain what will happen to students who have issues with their FSA tests, whether their scores will be held against them, and why schools only seem to base a student’s intelligence on a test.
Mr. Dodd reported that the State and the District determine the repercussion for the End of Course (EOC) exams and the FSA tests. He explained that the State dictates many of the core EOC exams, and the student’s exam grade is 30 percent of their final grade per Florida Statute, as well as controls the FSA assessments in order to be promoted in the third and tenth grades. He mentioned that there is some more flexibility with the District created EOCs that can range from 0 to 20 percent of the student’s final grade and will be counted in this District 20 percent only if it aids the student’s grade.
Dr. Deas asked the panel if they had any general advice for his students.
The panel responded by advising that everyone lock their doors, continue to pursue their education, write to legislators and make their voices heard, get involved with the community, and consider coming back to Lake County to be a part of its future and pursue a career here, even if they leave for a time.
The meeting was adjourned at 8:05 p.m.
jimmy conner, chairman
NEIL KELLY, CLERK