Polk Commissioners May OK Road Tax Hike To Make Up For Impact Fee Moratorium, Sales Tax Defeat

You can’t say you weren’t warned.

In 2014 County Manager Jim Freeman said he would recommend a property tax increase if the sales tax referendum, whose proceeds would have been used to pay for road projects, didn’t’ pass.

Voters overwhelmingly defeated the tax measure.

The first tax increase occurred in 2015 when the County Commission took half of the .2 of a mill taxing authority allocated to purchasing environmental lands, which had expired that year, and diverted it to the road program.

The second tax increase, which could be as much as an additional 1 mill, could be in next year’s budget.

The decision came out of the commission’s annual retreat, The Ledger reports.

Here’s the rest of the story.

One of the reasons voters were unexcited about increasing the sales tax for roads is that the County Commission had a source of income to pay for growth-related road projects, but wasn’t using it.

That was the road impact fee.

Commissioners suspended charging road impact fees for five years , which meant $30.6 million that would have gone to fix road problems went uncollected. However, even at that rate Polk was charging half of what the county’s impact fee consultant study said was necessary in 2009, the year before the impact fee moratorium began.

And, even after the impact fee moratorium was lifted, commissioners charged a discounted rate for the first year, which increased the deficit.

The County Commission began imposing impact fees in 1989, but the charges were minimal until 2004 because of the influence of the Polk County Builders Association. PCBA was also behind the moratorium.

The fees finally increased along with property taxes in 2004 and 2005 respectively after a business group called Polk Vision held a series of skillfully choreographed meetings that led to the issuance of report stating Polk had a $581.7 million infrastructure gap involving needed but unfunded road, parks and other public facility projects. That report was used to justify a major property tax increase and Polk’s first-ever park impact fees.

Now, thanks at least in part to the impact fee moratorium, Polk County is in a similar situation as it was nearly 15 years ago as a result of subsidizing development. And, as in 2005, the general public is being asked to pay for the bailout.

Some of the projects mentioned in The Ledger’s story from the retreat are carryovers from the 2014 sales tax referendum wish list.

They include widening Spirit Lake Road from Winter Lake Road to U.S. 17, which was priced at $63 million, and Marigold Avenue from Cypress Parkway to Coyote Road, which was priced at $18 million. They also include some neglected growth-related road projects such as Lake Wilson Road from Ronald Reagan Parkway to the Osceola County line, Cypress Parkway in Poinciana and County Road 557 between Lake Alfred and Interstate 4. There are no cost estimates on those projects. There may be more projects.

If this additional road tax increase is to be included in next year’s budget, the figures will have to come together no later than April or so. Commissioners get an early estimate of property tax values from Property Appraiser Marsha Faux’s office by late May and probably have a good idea sooner than that. Freeman has to present a balanced budget in early July. Estimated tax notices go out in August and budget hearings are in September.

Sierra has not taken a position on this proposal, but it’s definitely an issue to watch.

New Tiger Creek Trail Impressive

A new trail at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve east of Lake Wales debuted today to an appreciative crowd.

For the first time, the preserve has a trail that offers views of the creek from bluffs 10 to 20 feet above the stream.

The 2.5-mile trail is accessible from the recently reopened Wakeford Road trailhead, which had been closed since 2004.

The new trail connects to other trails in the preserve. If you have the energy, there’s plenty to explore.

Check it out.

Everglades Headwaters NWR Slowly Taking Shape

The Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, which was begun with a token 10-acre tract at The Nature Conservancy’s Hatchineha Ranch property in 2012, is slowing taking shape.

The refuge boundary covers 745,000 acres in Polk, Osceola, Highlands and Okeechobee counties. The plan was to acquire at least 150,000 acres—a substantial amount of land is already in public or private conservation ownership—through purchase of the land or purchase of conservation easements. Some land will not be considered because landowners have said they are not interested.

Today at the Lake Wales Ridge Environmental Working Group, Oliver van den Ende, the refuge’s new manager, reported that 6,170 acres has been acquired though land or easement purchases. The purchases include land adjacent to Lake Wales Ridge State Forest’s Arbuckle Tract and Allen David Broussard Catfish Creek Preserve State Park in Polk County.

The purchases occurred in 2015 and 2016, van den Ende said.

Some public access is being planned for the site on Old Avon Park Road adjacent to the state forest, he said.

Meanwhile, additional land is being protected in the area under a separate effort to buffer the Avon Park Air Force Range from incompatible development. That effort is ongoing as well.

For more information on the refuge, go to https://www.fws.gov/southeast/evergladesheadwaters/



Polk Political Season Begins: Pay Attention

One candidate has announced for one of two County Commission seats that will be open in 2018, The Ledger reports.

Two incumbents, District 2 Commissioner Melony Bell and District 4 Commissioner Todd Dantzler, are leaving because of term limits.

Next year will be the first election for those seats since 2010. There was no election in 2014 for those seats because neither incumbent drew an opponent. That was the first time that had happened since 1954.

There are important decisions coming in the next few years that interest the environmental community and should interest others as well. Whoever is elected to the County Commission will be a key decision maker in that discussion.

Some of the main issues now are:

Water policy: How will Polk County deal with its water supply issues and will it do so in an environmentally sustainable manner?

Land Protection: This involves completing of the job of protecting Polk’s remaining wildlands. If Amendment 1 money ever becomes available, will Polk officials agree to provide matching funds to make purchases to fill gaps in existing conservation lands through purchases of additional property or conservation easements.

Roads: The location of new roads has an impact on existing conservation lands the movement of wildlife along corridors and the quality of life for rural residents because these roads typically attract additional development. Land and conservation planning should be part of the discussion of the siting of any new road project.


Time To Put Home Hazardous Waste In Safe Place

If you have a burned out compact fluorescent light bulb, some garden chemicals you no longer need, some unneeded used oil (it’s good for rust-proofing saw blades and other tools) and other hazardous chemicals around your house, a convenient time to dispose of them safely is coming up. This is also a good time to get rid of old cell phones and other small electronic devices, which also contain hazardous materials.

That will be from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Feb. 18 at Lakeland’s Solid Waste Department parking lot at 602 Evelyn Ave.

This will be a drive-through dropoff event, so you don’t have to get out of your car.

Also, you don’t have to wait for special events.

Polk County Waste & Recycling’s Household Hazardous Waste dropoff center is open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday and from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturdays. It is located at 5 Environmental Loop South, which is near the county solid waste office near the landfill, located off Winter Lake Road in Winter Haven.

For more information, go to www.polk-county.net and follow the link to Waste and Recycling Department.

Another dropoff event is planned from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. March 4 at Haines City Public Works, 300 N. Fifth St.

Kordek: Polk Trail System Growing; More Planned

If you haven’t hit the trail in a while in Polk County, you might be surprised by the growth in the local trail system.

The length of paved, multi-use trails alone has grown from 4.5 miles 25 years ago to 65 miles today.

The length of all trails, including trails in local conservation areas, totals at least 400 miles.

This information comes from Ryan Kordek, Polk’s transportation planning administrator. He discussed the history and future of the trail system in Polk and beyond at Thursday’s monthly Ancient Islands Sierra Club meeting at Circle B Bar Reserve.

The newest trails are the first phase of the Panther Point Trail on the east side of Lake Hancock and the Peace River Trail in Fort Meade.

Kordek said the future includes work to link existing trails within Polk and to link them to other regional trails in the state, such as the Coast-to-Coast Trail, which is planned to run from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean along a path north of Polk County.

Those projects include linking the Lakeland trail system to the trail system in Tenoroc Public Use Area and to connect Tenoroc’s trail system to the Auburndale-TECO Trail, which connects to the Van Fleet Trail. Farther out is a plan connect the Auburndale-TECO Trail to the Chain of Lakes and Lake Alfred trails, the last of which is nearing completion.

Kordek said another idea is to connect the segments in the existing trail system along the Peace River and to explore ways to extend it southward to Charlotte Harbor.

If you want to keep up on trail plans and to get more information on the current trail system, go to the Polk Transportation Organization’s Facebook page.



SFWMD Surplusing Land On Kissimmee River

The South Florida Water Management District has declared a 16.8-acre parcel on the Kissimmee River as surplus and is attempting to sell it.

The property is the Lockett Estate, which is located on U.S. 98 at the river in Lorida in Highlands County.

Some of you may recall it was the site of a presentation and the launching of boat tours during earlier work on the river restoration project.

The property contains two historic buildings–a home built in 1897 and the 1900 Fort Basinger School—but according to the bid package neither building is protected from redevelopment and the only restriction protects a private cemetery on the site. It will be zoned agricultural, which under Highlands County’s allows one unit per 5 acres.

The minimum bid is $160,000. Bids are due by March 22. Anyone interested should contact SFWMD or go to its website for complete bid information.