OKEECHOBEE – On Wednesday, December 9, Okeechobee County officials asked the Okeechobee Legislation Delegation to support septic-to-sewer funding; make decisions about Lake Okeechobee on science and not on politics; and not pass unfunded mandates.
The Okeechobee County Legislative Delegation convened on Dec. 9, for a public hearing on local bills and other issues. State Representative Kaylee Tuck and State Senator Ben Albritton listened as representatives from the City of Okeechobee, Okeechobee County, Okeechobee County Schools, Okeechobee Utility Authority (OUA), Helping People Succeed and Healthy Start asked the legislators for their support.
Albritton warned those present the state budget will be tight this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said Florida is required to balance the budget each year.
“There is a real hole in our budget, hovering somewhere between $2.5 and $3 billion,” said Albritton.
“The message has been consistently from the leadership in both of our chambers and from the governor as well, that this is going to be a very lean year,” he continued. He said the Florida legislators and governor are required to balance the state budget. “We are largely a legislature that is not interested in taxing our way into a spending scenario.”
“It’s going to be a tough year,” he said.
“Please do all you can to prevent any unfunded mandates and attacks on home rule,” said Mayor Dowling Watford. He also asked for local control of medical marijuana dispensaries. He asked that any decisions about Lake Okeechobee be based on science.
The mayor said the city also highly supports the requests by Okeechobee Utility Authority for septic-to-sewer conversion funds and for funding for a new Okeechobee High School. “That building needs to be replaced,” he said.
The mayor said four-laning State Road 70 West should be a high priority for the Florida Department of Transportation. The coast to coast highway is often used for hurricane evacuations which backs traffic up on the portions of the road which are two lanes. “It would be helpful to have that four-laned at least to U.S. 27,” he said.
“Start at Okeechobee County and go to the west coast,” agreed Okeechobee County Commission Chair Terry Burroughs. “Anytime there is an evacuation, we have a problem,” he said.
Burroughs asked the legislators to support the Spot in the Sun stormwater treatment project. He said this water goes into Nubbin Slough which has high levels of phosphorus. “Clean that water up before it gets into Lake Okeechobee,” he advised. He also asked for state funding for a public safety fire tower. The firefighters spend a lot of time going back and forth to Indian River State College for training, he said. They would like to have a tower in Okeechobee so they could train here.
Burroughs asked the legislature to allow a local government surtax to fund infrastructure. “Giving the county the opportunity to do this doesn’t mean we will be able to pass a referendum,” he said. If the state allows a local option tax, the county leaders would still have to convince the taxpayers how this will be beneficial to them.
He also asked for help with broadband access which is a problem for rural counties. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed gaps in Internet access for education, work at home and tele-health, he said.
Another item on the county wish list is funding for inmate health care. “If somebody can’t pay for it, it comes back on the taxpayers,” he said. If a person who is arrested has Medicaid or Medicare, once they are incarcerated, they lose benefits.
“From the day the person is incarcerated they lose all benefits,” he said. He suggested they continue Medicare and Medicaid benefits for those who are in jail awaiting trial, because those individuals have not yet been convicted of a crime.
Albritton said there will be discussion of septic to sewer in the next legislative session. He said they will also address the use of reclaimed water. Coastal communities should stop turning hundreds of millions of gallons out to tide each year, he added.
Okeechobee County Commissioner Kelly Owens asked the state require septic tank permits be aligned with local zoning laws. The Florida Department of Health currently permits septic tanks for properties on which the structures do not meet county zoning or code, she explained. She said DOH should check with the county building department before approving a septic tank permit to make sure the structure the septic tank will be connected to is a permitted structure.
Steve Nelson of the Okeechobee Utility Authority asked for regulatory support for a state requirement that residents connect with sewer lines when they become available. He also asked for funding for a septic to sewer conversion project in Treasure Island to remove 2,400 septic tanks from that area.
Superintendent of Schools Ken Kenworthy asked for funding for a new Okeechobee High School. He said the state has determined the current Okeechobee High School is in critical need of replacement. He said OHS was ranked second on the list of state schools that should be replaced. The top spot on that list is a school that was damaged by Hurricane Michael.
The aging structure has plumbing problems and is not large enough to house all of the students, he continued. “About 500 freshmen go to a different school across town.” About 300 of those freshmen are bused to the main OHS campus for some classes and they lose a significant amount of time sitting on a bus instead of being in class.
Kenworthy also asked for some help this year due to the pandemic. He encouraged them to test for diagnostic purposes but not to use the test results to evaluate teachers.