Polk County Commissioners approached legislators in the state House and Senate with four requests at the 2014 Legislative Delegation Meeting of Monday, Dec. 16, held at the Neil Combee Administration Building inside BOCC chambers; part of a scheduled day-long session among legislators and various entities.
In addition to the BOCC, legislators met with the Polk County Public Schools Board of Education and School Superintendent/staff, constitutional officers, municipalities, and a plethora of not-for-profit agencies, organizations and interest groups.
The BOCC presented four items for consideration: The Bartow Northern Connector, Phase II; Alternate Water: Southeast Floridan Wellfield Project; Major League Baseball/Spring Training: Tigertown Renovation; and Nuisance Bill: Rancho Bonito.
The topics were presented to Florida legislators on behalf of the BOCC by Assistant County Manager Lea Ann Thomas, who opened with the Bartow Northern Connector. The BOCC was asking for $15.4 million, to complete the construction of a four-lane highway from U.S. 17 to State Road 60. Phase I, which was recently completed, runs from U.S. 98 to U.S. 17.
“We think it’s very important, just for the economic development of the whole area,” said Thomas, who also mentioned it will be near the CSX terminal now being built. She added Phase II will be similar to Phase I, which is Ernest Smith Boulevard, with curbs and gutters. “It’s vital because it relieves existing and projected traffic congestion off of (S.R) 60, (U.S.) 98 and (U.S.) 17.
“The project is consistent with Polk County’s long-range transportation plans,” she concluded on the subject.
In all, the project’s projected cost is estimated at $18.9 million, of which $2.9 million will go toward right-of-way purchase, and the remaining $16 million for construction. According to the handout provided, approximately $3.5 million has already been awarded for construction slated to start in Fiscal Year 2019.
At her conclusion, BOCC chairman R. Todd Dantzler asked if the plans include a bike trail. Thomas deferred the question to Tom Dierdorf, the Director of the county’s Planning and Development Division, who nodded yes in response to Dantzler.
Also of major concern to the BOCC is the development of alternative water supplies. The delegation was addressed by Gary Fries, Utilities Division Director, who said Polk County faces many challenges.
“The big challenge is the county being the head waters for six rivers, none of which stay in Polk County,” said Fries. Hence the big collection areas are outside Polk County. “So the only real source of water that we have is groundwater.”
On top of that, said Fries, the possibility exists that the county may already be over-permitted in the upper Floridan and that there may be restrictions coming up because of that. To address the future needs over the next 40 to 50 years, the county wants help from the state and water districts such as Swiftmud and South Florida, as well as the state’s Department of Environmental Protection Agency to assist in the cost of developing a county-wide distribution system.
“We need to have a system where we can transport water to areas that need it,” he said. The proposed wellfield project, which when completed would address the needs of an estimated 30 million people would include an estimated 25 miles of pipeline, as well as building treatment plants and new wellfields. The projected cost, he said, was assessed at $329 million. The cost would be split among the state and the region, as well as the sale of municipal bonds.
When asked for a breakdown by state Rep. Neil Combee, Fries said it included about 10-20 acres for water treatment plant, and approximately five acres per well, with a total of 15 wells projected.
Rep. John Wood asked if the county’s comprehensive water plan legal structure was in place, and was told yes. Also raised was the fact a new legal entity, distinct from existing water districts, has to be in place within the next two years in order to proceed forward.
The next item revolved around keeping the Detroit Tigers organization in Lakeland. Essentially, according to Bill Tinsley, the liaison for the City of Lakeland, what is being sought was a change in the terms of repayment. It currently stands at 30 years, and the city wants the terms of repayment by the state to be done over a period of 20 years. Otherwise, the 30-year obligation would place a burden on the city making it difficult to repay bondholders.
David Shepp, a governmental consultant also wanted a change to the “Callback Provision.” As it currently reads, if the Detroit Tiger organization should depart Lakeland before 20 years have expired, the Tiger organization would be required to pay back 100 percent of the financial cost renovating Joker Marchant Stadium and the Tigertown facility as a whole.
“The current Tiger owner does not like to sign long-term contracts,” said Shepp. What was proposed was for any remaining debt to be repaid on a pro ratio basis. As an example, Shepp said that should the Tiger organization decide to leave after its 18th year, it would only be on the hook for the remaining two years.
In July, the BOCC approved on a 5-0 vote to contribute $14.6 million in tourist tax dollars in an effort to keep the Tigers in Lakeland; $17 million had been sought. At that BOCC meeting of July 9. Mark Jackson, director of tourism and sports marketing, was asked where the tax funds came from. Jackson’s reply was half came from short-term rentals, hotels and motels. The money for the Tiger Town renovation would be the fourth cent of a 5-cent tax.
Altogether, the projects estimated cost is $37 million. The remainder of the funding will come from the City of Lakeland, the Detroit Tigers organization, and a state grant; the latter is expected to contribute approximately $20 million.
In its final request, relief is being sought for an area in Polk County – Rancho Bonito — that borders Pasco County. An unplatted subdivision, of nearly 900 lots, the area has proven itself to be a nuisance, especially to neighboring properties. County Attorney Michael Craig would like to see amendments to nuisance legislation, specifically to s.60.05, F.S. “which together refer to a new s.823.051. The proposed changes would allow the state or county attorney to seek a court order declaring all or part of Rancho Bonito a nuisance, thereby allowing for the ability to prohibit all or some nuisance activities.
Although rural, many of the criminal situations encountered are those of an urban nature, including drugs, gang activity and prostitution. In addition, there has been extensive property destruction that is endangering the environment, incidents of underage drinking, slaughter of cattle on a neighboring ranch, vandalism, trespassing and discharge of firearms. County Attorney Michael Craig told the delegation that on occasion, Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputies have been fired upon.
This has been an ongoing problem for many years, one previous BOCC members have grappled with. Rep. Wood said the problem is greater than Polk County can handle alone and said the BOCC should work with such regulatory bodies as the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Bar Association.
In its final presentation, the BOCC asked for permission to be allowed to be a voting member of T-BARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority). This would allow it a greater role with other counties and connect with other transportation authorities in central Florida.
Although Dierdorf did not see a downside, Commissioner John Hall expressed concern what would be Polk County’s financial obligation on projects that had no direct bearing on the county. Would Polk County be obligated to pay for debt costs.
“I’m opposed to taking Polk County tax dollars to other counties,” said Hall. He concluded by saying that if that is the situation, he would not support joining T-BARTA.