Monday, December 31, 2007

State of the City

On January 18 I will make my annual “State of the City” presentation at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon. This event will be held at the First Baptist Church at noon.

This year’s presentation will reflect the accomplishments of the past year but will focus on what we expect in 2008. The new year has the potential to be the most rewarding year in quite some time, as a number of projects that are being planned are scheduled to come to fruition. The areas of high expectation include downtown re-development, Lincoln Ave re-development, and City capital projects.

Downtown Re-Development
There are signs of a positive momentum beginning to take shape downtown:
  • The renovation of old city hall is now well-underway, with a new branch campus of Polk Community College set to open in 2009;

  • The Bullard building at Scenic and Stuart is being re-modeled at a sizeable cost to create office and apartment lofts upstairs;

  • Tres Jolie has opened in their new location on Park Avenue with a substantial investment for its bakery, restaurant, and catering business;

  • In anticipation of their mall lease expiring, Brenda’s gifts has opened a new store on Park Avenue;

  • The Bank of America building has been sold to the 610 Corporation, a firm with holdings that include properties in downtown Winter Haven. Peterson Myers has leased the upper two floors and construction plans are being drawn. The third floor of that building has never been occupied!

  • The City and the County have agreed to waive impact fees (except City water and sewer impact fees) in a “core improvement area” that includes downtown and the Lincoln Avenue neighborhood commercial district;

  • The Chamber’s new CRA (Community Re-Development Agency) steering committee has hired Martin Vargas to do the first phase of a downtown study with a $25,000 donation from Richard Quaid, who purchased and just completed the remodeling of the north arcade. The study is scheduled for completion in February, and it is anticipated that some recommendations will be implemented immediately with CRA funds budgeted in this fiscal year;

  • The City has received title to the Grand Hotel, and proposals for its use are being solicited with a deadline of March 31.
Lincoln Avenue Neighborhood Commercial Re-Development
There is progress being made in re-developing the Lincoln Avenue Neighborhood Commercial District:
  • The first new business on Lincoln Avenue since the hurricanes is preparing to open! Massey’s Meat Market is located at 344 Lincoln Avenue, between C and D Streets;

  • The Green and Gold Foundation operates a Farmer’s Market in the vacant lot at the SE corner of Lincoln Avenue and C Street on Fridays and Saturdays;

  • The CRA has acquired the Walker Building at the SW corner of Lincoln Avenue and C Street and is working with an architect to explore re-modeling options;

  • City staff is also exploring the feasibility of building a police sub-station at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and B Street with the help of an investor who is working with the Green and Gold Foundation.
City Capital Projects
The CRA Board, consisting of the City Commissioners, recently approved a $9.5 million bond issue for capital projects. The biggest single project will be street re-surfacing, with funds also budgeted for utility projects. All funds will be spent in the CRA area, which is generally the historic area of the City and includes downtown and the Lincoln Avenue/Northwest area.

Our town is welcoming the new year with great anticipation. Happy New Year, Lake Waleans!

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Community's Recreation Opportunities

Our town is blessed with many active and passive recreational opportunities. Let’s explore them:
Active Recreation Opportunities for Adults
  • Softball – There is a senior softball league that plays at the Northwest Sports Complex (Frasier Field), located on Florida Ave. Contact: Ken Duel at 679-7783

  • Basketball – The City operates periodic leagues for adult basketball at the Albert Kirkland Sr. Gymnasium, located one block east of Scenic Highway (take Sessoms Ave east and turn left onto Fourth St.) The gym is also open at the following times for pick-up games: Mon., Wed., Fri. from 3:30 to 6 p.m.; Tu., Th. from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m.; Sun. from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Contact Burney Hayes at 678-4088

  • Tennis – The City has two tennis court locations:

    • Five courts are located at the corner of Sessoms and Fifth Street. These courts are lighted for evening play; and

    • Three courts are located at the Northwest Sports Complex at the western end of Florida Ave, off of Scenic Highway;
  • Shuffleboard – The City’s shuffleboard courts are located in Crystal Lake Park, near the five City tennis courts noted above. The courts are operated by volunteers from the Senior Center; Contact Hubert Becker 676-3764

  • Hiking, walking – The paved trail around Lake Wailes is well used. A new trail connects the Hardman Recreation Complex on Fourth Street, one block from the Albert Kirkland Sr. gymnasium, with Kiwanis Park;

  • Weight lifting, fitness – Equipment is available at the City’s Albert Kirkland Sr. gymnasium, and at the YMCA on Burns Ave.

  • Boating – The City has a boat ramp on Lake Wailes. This ramp is scheduled for renovation in the spring.
Active Recreation Opportunities for Youth
  • Baseball – Lake Wales Little League is a parent-run league, in operation for over 50 years! Girls and boys of various age groups play at the sports complex on Lakeshore Drive;

  • Football – there are two youth footballs leagues:

    • The Steelers, in operation for over 20 years! Contact Richard DeLoach at 605-0265

    • The Gators, which started three years ago. Contact Tim Burns at 528-8197
  • Basketball – The City operates the Junior Magic program at the Albert Kirkland Sr. gymnasium. Contact Burney Hayes at 557-2047

  • Soccer – there are two youth soccer programs:

    • The YMCA operates a recreational program of youth soccer; Contact Leah at 676-9441

    • The Ridge Soccer League, a parent-run organization, operates a competitive league. Contact Robbie Shields at 528-1921.
  • Sailing – the Lake Wales Pram Fleet has been in operation since 1948 and is the 2nd oldest pram fleet in the world! It provides sailing lessons on Lake Wailes for youth ages 9 – 15. Their new laser fleet is available for all experienced sailors. Contact Patty McKeeman at 638-3546.
Future Active Recreation Programs
  • Tennis – We need someone to organize a league at the City tennis courts.

  • Volleyball – We need someone to organize a league at the Albert Kirkland Sr. gymnasium.

  • Swimming – The City is planning to build a swimming pool. More information on this project will appear in future columns.

  • Bicycling – Bicycle Bob will help at 678-9611

  • Skate Boarding – The City is planning to build a skateboard park in Kiwanis Park.
Recreation is good for the mind and body. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Historic District Ordinance

On January 2 at 6 pm the City Commission will continue the public discussion of the historic district ordinance. The draft document, presented at the December 4 Commission meeting, is available for review on the City’s website at (The City’s website can be viewed from internet access computers at the library.)

The ordinance has been recommended for adoption by the Planning Board, which reviewed its provisions at their October and November meetings, and will be fine-tuned before adoption hearings by the City Commission early in 2008.

Some frequently asked questions about the ordinance
  • Who wrote the historic ordinance? Where did it come from?

    The ordinance was written by Planning and Development Director Margaret Swanson, following a review of a number of ordinances from various cities around the state and guidelines from the state’s historic preservation office.

  • What does the ordinance do?

    The ordinance primarily does four things:

    1. It designates our downtown area as a historic district, specifically the area between the Scenic Highway and First Street including the Dixie Walesbuilt Hotel and the post office block, and both sides of Park and Stuart Avenues. This area includes twenty-seven buildings identified in a 1988 study as potential National Register properties. The portion of the proposed district east of Market Street was designated a historic commercial district on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

    2. It requires review of new construction or exterior changes, including signage, to buildings within the district. The purpose of the review is to determine if the proposed work complies with standards for historic renovations based on the Secretary of the Interior’s guidelines. These standards are used nation-wide by local historic boards. Property owners will be issued a “certificate of appropriateness” if the proposed work complies with the requirements and will be allowed to move forward with their plans.

    3. This review will be the responsibility of a new board, the “historic district regulatory board.” Board appointments are made by the City Commission and must include persons with demonstrated technical expertise in areas related to construction and historic preservation.

    4. It sets up criteria for evaluating other districts that may be proposed. New districts may be proposed by the City Commission, the Planning Board, or by property owners. If initiated by property owners, a petition with signatures of at least 51% of the owners of property within the proposed district is required.

  • Don’t we already have historic districts?

    Yes, we have three National Register Historic Districts. The register is recognition of the historic value of a district, but does not regulate changes to buildings within the district.

  • Don’t we already have a historic preservation committee?
    Yes. The existing historic preservation commission will continue with its current charge to carry out educational programs, undertake studies, and make recommendations on general historic preservation matters.

  • Does the ordinance say anything about the murals downtown?
    The ordinance also provides for the regulation of murals, as do many of the ordinances that were reviewed prior to the preparation of this ordinance. Gainesville has one such ordinance.

  • Is there a charge for the review?
    Yes. The ordinance contains a fee schedule. City staff is already working on a revision of the schedule, to require a low or no fee for signs and minor projects. The fee for a major project or new building is proposed at $200 plus $75 advertising fee.

  • Will downtown property owners receive a letter about the ordinance?
    City staff plans to send an informational letter to downtown property owners to let them know about the January 2nd discussion. Legal advertisements will be published prior to formal readings of the ordinance, as required by law.
In order for an ordinance to become law, it must be approved by the City Commission at two separate meetings; that is, to have two “readings.” The historic district ordinance has not yet been “read” as it is still under review by the City Commission. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Tax Reform and the City's Budget

Our state legislature set up the second wave of tax reform as a proposal to be decided by the voters. The vote will take place at a special, statewide election on January 29. A 60% approval is needed for passage.

This proposal covers a range of complex items. If approved, it will have a destructive effect on the City of Lake Wales budget, and it will be the first time that school tax revenues will be affected. Let’s review the effect of the first wave of tax reform, and then look at the “second wave” tax reform proposal to be voted on, and the projected effect of the second wave on our town.
The Effect of the First Wave of Tax Reform
The first wave of tax reform contained a provision that allowed local governments to override it. Over one-third of the local governments in the state did so. Our City Commission voted to comply with the state legislature’s intent, and this year’s tax rate is 1.1 mills less than last year. The effect of this reduction, had the City Commission kept the same tax rate as last year, is as follows:
  • The General Fund was reduced by $645,108;

  • The Community Re-Development Agency (CRA) fund was reduced by $201,098;

  • The Library Fund was reduced by $75,070

  • Total reduction in tax revenue: $921,276
In order to meet the challenge of balancing the budget with such reductions, the City Commission took a number of cost-cutting measures, including:
  • Trimming the City workforce by 13 full-time and one part-time positions. All of the full-time positions were, in effect, vacant – some employees were shifted to other positions, and police dispatching and payroll preparation were contracted out at a lower cost;

  • The City changed from a self-insured health insurance plan to a less-expensive traditional plan, selected after bids were received;

  • Finding other ways to accomplish tasks, such as closing the cemetery office and moving those two positions to the Parks Maintenance division, which allowed the termination of the contract for grass cutting at Lake Wailes and other parks.
The Second Wave Tax Reform Proposal
The proposal includes the following:
  • It doubles the homestead exemption, from $25,000 to $50,000. This would not apply to school taxes;

  • It ensures the “portability” of the “save our homes” provisions, up to $500,000. This allows homestead property owners to transfer their Save Our Homes benefit to a new homestead within two years of giving up their previous homestead. This provision will apply to school tax levies;

  • It ensures a tangible personal property exemption of $25,000. This exemption will apply to school levies;

  • (Note: if approved, these three items would take effect January 1, 2008; the item below would take effect January 1, 2009)

  • It provides a 10% cap on assessments for non-homesteaded property. This cap does not apply to school levies and will sunset in 10 years unless re-approved by voters.
The Projected Effect of the Second Wave on Our Town
The second wave of tax reform, if approved by the voters on January 29, will have the following projected effects:
  • It will cut the General Fund tax revenue another $276,486;

  • It will cut the CRA tax revenue another $293,838;

  • It will cut the Library Fund tax revenue another $31,148.
The City Commission had already reduced the City’s tax rate by one mill over the two years before the first wave of tax reform. The first wave then cut the rate an additional 1.1 mills. Managing the second wave of tax reform, should it be approved by the voters, will be much more difficult.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Dealing with the Challenges of Tax Reform

When I was in college a professor told us that the founding fathers intended for the government of these United States to be like a layer cake with three distinct layers: federal, state, and local. However, over 230 years later, our layer cake looks more like a marble cake. The federal government is setting priorities for states and local governments; the state is reviewing and approving city annexations and zoning designations; and the cities and states are lobbying Congress for favorable legislative action.

The “marble cake” analogy comes to mind when I think of Tax Reform, a popular topic in Tallahassee these days. Our town’s budget has been through one wave of tax reform, and on January 29 voters across the state will decide if there will be a second wave. What were the consequences of the first wave? And what will likely be the consequences of the second wave?
In the last three years the Lake Wales City Commission has lowered the city tax rate over two mills, from 9.44 mills to 7.3521 mills. The reduction of the first mill was called for by the City Commission; the reduction of the second mill came after careful deliberation as the Commission’s response to tax reform. (Please note that some cities did not follow the path intended by the legislature and kept their previous millage with a super-majority vote of their city council.)

If our City Commission had not reduced the tax rate the second mill it would have received $921,276 more than what is now being received at the adopted millage. This was a very difficult decision for the City Commission to make in light of these prevailing conditions:
  1. Just like in everyone’s household, the price of necessary items keeps going up. In the last three years, City expenditures for the listed items have gone up as follows:

    • Gasoline - 40%

    • Insurance - 40.2%

    • Electricity - 35.2%

    • Operating Supplies - 41%

    Also note that in the first two years, insurance costs – health, worker’s compensation, and property – went up 74%! In response, the City Commission approved a change in the health insurance carrier and the terms of coverage. With these changes and fewer employees to be covered, insurance costs leveled off to 40% in the third year.

    These and many other necessary items have risen drastically in the last three years, leaving the City (just as in your own household) with a limited ability to control these cost items. Despite the increases noted above, the overall General Fund expenditure budget for the current year is below the level it was two years ago.

  2. The City has been working to build up its cash reserves since the 2001 fiscal year, when cash reserves were used to cover a serious budget shortfall. The City had made good progress towards establishing a healthy cash reserve until the unanticipated insurance costs rose drastically in the last two years. The City is committed to re-building this reserve.

    These reductions have been welcomed by taxpayers, especially small business owners and the owners of rental property who are not covered by the “Save our Homes” Act, (which came into effect in 1995) that capped the county property appraiser’s office assessed value of homesteaded property at 3% per year. At the same time, the difficulty of achieving a balanced budget in the face of these thorny conditions faced by the City Commission last September can now be appreciated.
On January 29, voters will have the opportunity to vote on the second wave of tax reform. Next week’s column will explore the expected results and ramifications of that important election.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Utility Infrastructure Planning

Last week in this space we discussed the steps the City has taken to prepare for growth in the substantial revision of the Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Code, as well as an updating of the City’s impact fees. This week we will explore another important aspect of preparing for growth: the planning and construction of new water and sewer infrastructure.

A new system to ensure the proper planning for water and sewer facilities has been put in place by the City Commission. The new system has the following features:
  1. Developments that wish to utilize City water and sewer facilities must now be annexed into the City. This is a change from the past, where developers outside the City were allowed to use these facilities and agree to annex at a later date;

  2. The system requires developers who will need City water and sewer service for their future development to sign an agreement and get in the “queue” (that is, to “line up”) for future service. It costs 10% of the water and sewer impact fees to get in line;

  3. Once in line, City staff will periodically check to see how many developers are ready to go to the next step, which involves signing a “Utility Service Agreement”. This agreement locks a developer in to making a series of payments of utility impact fees to construct the new facilities that will be needed for development.
At present there are 13 developments in the queue – some of whom were automatically entered as they were already in some stage of the development process when the system was adopted; others have paid the now required 10% fee.

New water and sewer facilities to serve growth are already in various stages of developments. These projects include:
  • A new water plant will soon be finished at the airport. Initially it will be used for the new fire hydrants at the airport (the first time the airport has had fire hydrants) and will be converted to a potable (drinking water) well to serve the west SR 60 area;

  • A new elevated water tank is being designed for construction in the area of Scenic Highway and Hunt Brothers Road;

  • A new sewer force main will serve the Buck More Road area, and developments south of SR 60 from the Hunt Brothers Road area to US 27. The City Commission has hired the contractor and this project will begin in the near future;

  • A phased expansion of the sewer treatment plant and operational improvements have been engineered and the plans have recently been submitted for state agency approval;

  • The City is changing how it disposes of the water that has been treated at the sewer plant. Rather than all of the water going into the Rapid Infiltration Basins near the Scenic Highway between Lake Belle and Hunt Brothers Road, the City is beginning to use some of it for irrigation in the Longleaf Business Park, the new soccer/multi-purpose field complex on Hunt Brothers Road, and soon in the city cemetery. There are also plans to serve the Whispering Ridge and Mayfair subdivisions.
Preparing for growth is a multi-faceted process, and the City is successfully moving forward to encourage quality growth and the facilities needed to serve it!

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Preparing for Growth

There is a feature that appears in this newspaper entitled, “Lake Wales in Motion,” which lists new developments. The City Commission has directed that the City must be well prepared for growth, and that existing residents not be saddled with the costs associated with new development. To this end, important steps have been taken in the areas of planning, impact fees, and utilities to ensure that, to the greatest extent possible, growth pays for itself.
In 2005 the City Commission adopted a substantial overhaul to the City’s Comprehensive Plan and the Land Development Regulations. City staff had recognized the need for this change for many years… in fact, the Land Development Regulations had been re-written twice by mid-2001, but each time the documents were not judged by City staff to be worthy of City Commission review.

In 2004 Assistant City Manager Judy Delmar and Director of Planning and Development Margaret Swanson took up this task. They each continued with their existing workloads while they wrote the massive document, which was then reviewed by the Planning and Zoning Board and transmitted to the City Commission with a recommendation for approval. A number of public hearings were also held before City Commission adoption.

Some of the major changes in the new code include the following:
  • Tree ordinance – developers are required to replace trees that are cut down on site, or pay into a fund to plant trees elsewhere in the city;

  • Sidewalks – developers are required to build sidewalks, and if there are good reasons not to, they pay into a fund to build sidewalks elsewhere in the City;

  • Commercial zoning strategy – existing commercial areas have a wide variety of permitted commercial uses, to encourage re-development of older commercial areas. Many new commercial areas have a new future land use designation: Limited Commercial/Industrial. This designation is more restrictive on the types of uses and discourages strip malls along state highways;

  • Two entrances to subdivisions with over 50 lots – this provides for better access for public safety vehicles as well as residents;

  • Density reduction – the prior code allowed for some areas to be developed at a density of 25 units per acre! The maximum density that can now be built is 12 units per acre; and

  • Site plan requirements have improved – Large residential developments reviewed under the new regulations have a “spine” road that runs through the development. The spine road does not have driveways coming out onto it, but connect “neighborhood nodes” of houses. They also provide for open space within the development. (Example: Whispering Ridge, on 11th Street south of SR 60.)
Margaret Swanson has continued to recommend adjustments to the Land Development Code as new situations present themselves. The next amendment to the code to be proposed is the Historic Preservation Ordinance. This is a very important document for our town, as we are blessed to have many historic structures. The ordinance recommends that the downtown area be named a historic district under the terms of the ordinance, while any other area of the City must undergo a process in which a majority of the property owners vote to make their area a historic district.

The primary regulation for properties within the historic district includes a process for developing vacant properties and modifying existing buildings. The ordinance proposes that a technical committee review such developments or modifications, and make a recommendation to the City Commission. The goal is to preserve the celebrated character of our historic areas.
Impact Fees
Also in 2005 the City Commission directed staff to review the City’s impact fees. An impact fee is paid by new development (or an existing development that increases its demand for service) and it represents the cost of expanding a City service to accommodate the new development. For example, the water impact fee represents the cost of expanding the water system – the well plants and water pipes – to accommodate the addition of this new customer. Impact fees are collected for the following City service areas:
  • Water

  • Sewer

  • Police

  • Fire & Rescue

  • Parks

  • Library
As this is a technical and esoteric area that could bring lawsuits if the fee is proven to be incorrect, the City followed the industry standard and hired a consultant to do this work. The fees are now updated every year. In addition to these City imposed fees on new development, the City also collects impact fees for the County in the areas of Transportation (used by the County to improve County roads), Corrections (for jail expansion), Emergency Medical Service (ambulances), and Schools.

Next week’s column will feature a review of the substantial work that is being done to upgrade our City’s utility systems and prepare for the demands of growth.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

More on Code Enforcement

Last week in this space we examined the code enforcement process. This week we will review recent code enforcement activity, the professionals who carry out this important work, and the role of citizens in the process.
Code Enforcement Activity
Each month the City’s two code enforcement officers investigate an average of about 130 code enforcement cases. Of these, about 118 cases are resolved when the owner voluntarily corrects and eliminates the code violation. The other 12 or so cases per month are brought before the Code Enforcement Board for hearings.

Cases are usually presented before the board for two public hearings. If the board determines that the violations alleged to be on the property do in fact exist, the board then orders the owner to make corrections. If the violations are not corrected, the case is brought back for a second hearing in which the board imposes fines and places a lien on the property. As discussed last week, a lien is a legal claim against the property. The City may foreclose (take ownership away from the owner) if the owner allows the lien amount to build up to an amount that he or she will not pay.

Code enforcement activity received a boost from several sources in the past two years:
  • The City Commission accepted a special Community Development Block grant after the 2004 hurricanes that repaired four homes and demolished 20 abandoned buildings. Some of these buildings, such as the Ridge Dry Cleaners on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd had been an eyesore for years. In addition, there were over 30 abandoned buildings demolished with other funding sources since March of 2005.

  • The City Commission adopted a “Code Enforcement Amnesty” program during this same period. The goal was to assist property owners with code violations by reducing fines and having liens released. The program ran for 10 months and 14 properties were brought into compliance; and

  • With the assistance of police officers, “code enforcement sweeps” are conducted 4-6 times per year, along with community clean-ups. In last Saturday’s event on Lincoln Ave, the police department and the City’s community development consultant began the painting of the Walker Building, which was recently acquired by the City.
Another subject of activity is illegal signs. Last year our code enforcement officers removed over 2,000 illegally placed signs from around the City. Many of these were the small, temporary signs that are placed on wire hangers and stuck in the ground.
Code Enforcement Officers
Code enforcement has become a legal and technical activity. The Florida Association of Code Enforcement (FACE) offers three levels of classes that lead to the certification of a Code Enforcement Professional. In addition to FACE, the Polk Association of Code Enforcement (PACE) meets monthly with guest speakers on legal issues and public safety.

Our two code enforcement officers are not police officers but they work out of the police department. Bill Gindlesperger is a certified code enforcement officer and a former president of PACE. He has worked for the City for a total of 5 years. Angella O’Connor recently transferred to code enforcement from the communications section (which was transferred to the Sheriff’s Department). She has worked for the City for nearly 1.5 years.
The Role of Citizens in Code Enforcement
Citizens play a key role in this operation, as they are the eyes and ears of code enforcement. Suspected violations can be called in anonymously by leaving a message at 678-4223, extension 275 or 265, between the hours of 5 pm and 7 am. Suspected violations can also be transmitted via the City’s website:

Citizens who are visited by code enforcement officers can also be of great assistance, by viewing the process as working for the betterment of the community. Code enforcement officers are seeking compliance with City codes, and a sense of cooperation and community spirit is very beneficial and always appreciated.

Several citizen groups have been very helpful in the utilization of properties that have been acquired through the code enforcement process:
  • The Green and Gold Foundation approached the City with a proposal to have houses built on some of the vacant lots acquired by the City. The City Commission conveyed three building lots to the Foundation, who has found a buyer to build houses on the lots; and

  • The B Street Center is now operating a Farmers’ Market on a lot that was acquired by the City. This provides a community service and utilizes this lot for a worthwhile activity. (The Farmers’ Market is at Lincoln and C Streets every Friday afternoon and all day Saturday.)
The City Commission has placed a special emphasis on eliminating dilapidated buildings from our City. It is my hope that with the information provided in this space, everyone will have a new appreciation for this important goal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Code Enforcement

In last Saturday’s edition of the Lake Wales News there was a front page article under the heading “Grand Hotel Headed for a Court Date.” The article made reference to City code violations and fines levied against this downtown property. It also noted that the City Attorney is taking the building’s owner to court to foreclose on the property.

These efforts are generally referred to as “code enforcement”. Many citizens are unfamiliar with the code enforcement process, and yet it is an essential and on-going City function - one that the City Commission, several years ago, directed staff to intensify.

The Code Enforcement Process
The City Commission has adopted a number of laws (also called ordinances) regulating the safety of buildings and the appearance of property. These laws are enforced by the City’s two code enforcement officers. The code enforcement officers are not police officers, but they do work out of the police department. They investigate and seek the property owner’s assistance to correct the following types of violations:
  • Substandard structures such as buildings that are dilapidated and appear to be abandoned

  • High grass and weeds

  • Trash and debris

  • Junk vehicles, and commercial vehicles parked in an area zoned residential

  • Zoning issues including illegal uses, such as a business operating without a permit within a residential neighborhood

  • Illegal signs and fences

  • Vending license violations

  • Occupational license violations

  • Illegal demolitions

  • Noise complaints

  • Animal complaints
If a property fails to meet the city regulations, a code enforcement officer contacts the owner to warn him or her of their property’s violation. The owner then has a period of time, usually 10 days, to bring the property into compliance. If the violations are not corrected within that period of time, the property owner is then given a notice to appear before the Code Enforcement Board.
As noted in this space last week, the Code Enforcement Board is one of 16 active boards that carry out city business. It is made up of seven members, appointed by the City Commission, with meetings scheduled the second Monday of every month at 5:00 pm in the City Commission chambers. During that meeting the Board members hear testimony and review evidence offered by both the code enforcement officers and the property owner. After reviewing all aspects of the case the Board members may find that the property either has, or does not have, a violation. Based on the circumstances of the case, the Board may offer the owner additional time to make the required corrections. The Board is also empowered to impose fines of up to $250 for each day of continued violation. Such is the case with the Grand Hotel.

The fine becomes a “lien” on the property - meaning that the City now has a claim against the title of the property. This claim has two very important features:
  • A lien against the property is likely to affect the title to the property and make it harder to sell. If the owner wishes to sell the property, the lien amount must be paid to the City. (Once the property is brought into compliance and the violation is removed, the owner may petition the Code Enforcement Board to reduce the lien.)

  • If the fine builds up to a large amount the City may wish to “foreclose” on the property. This means that the City could bring a lawsuit against the owner and obtain ownership of the property without payment to the owner. This is what the City is pursuing in the Grand Hotel case.
The City has another option in dealing with abandoned buildings: condemnation. Rather than a code enforcement action, condemnation is based on a determination by the City’s Building Official - that the building fails to meet the requirements of the building code. Buildings in this condition create a health, safety, and welfare concern. This action was used against the former Ridge Dry Cleaning plant on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, which after the 2004 hurricanes had sections of the metal roof become an airborne hazard. With proper notice to the owner the building was demolished, and the cost of demolition became a lien against the property.

Next week this column will explore code enforcement activity in the past few years, the professionals who carry out this important work, and the role of citizens in the process. Note: William Gindlesperger, Chief Code Enforcement Officer, and Albert C. Galloway, City Attorney, contributed to this article.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Spirit of Volunteerism

One of the many things that makes Lake Wales special is the spirit of volunteerism. There are multitudes of people who volunteer their time and energy to many organizations around the City. Agencies like the B Street Center, the Care Center, and the Senior Center could not operate at anywhere near their present level of service without volunteers.

This is also true in the world of recreation and sports, where adult coaches put in untold hours, year after year, to help kids learn good sportsmanship, discipline, and teamwork. The Lake Wales Little League, the Steelers and the Gators youth football programs, Jr. Magic basketball, the Ridge Soccer League, and the YMCA all offer coaching opportunities. I myself have only coached one season of soccer, but I still remember smiling when a fourth grader recognized me in the grocery store and said, “Hey mom, there’s my Coach!”

The City also has many volunteer opportunities, including service as a member of Voice, or by serving on a City advisory board. Voice stands for “Volunteer Observers Impacting Community Effort”, and Voice members carry out a variety of tasks to aid our police officers and stretch our law enforcement resources. For example, Voice volunteers can be seen at every parade, helping to direct traffic. They keep things running smoothly and enable us to have someone at every intersection. They also serve in this role when there are other special events, such as a bicycle race last summer. Voice volunteers are a tremendous asset to our police department.

Our City also has 16 active advisory boards. Citizens are appointed to these boards by the City Commission, and meetings are usually held once per month. Other conditions of membership vary with each board, such as the length of membership, and whether or not the member has to be a city resident. Some boards currently have vacancies, and applications for any open seat are available from the City Clerk’s office in the Municipal Administration Building.

The work of the Advisory Boards is very important, and their meetings are subject to the “sunshine law”. This means that the meetings are open to the public, with the meeting times posted in the Municipal Administration Building, and minutes are taken. Everyone is welcome to attend the meetings, especially if you are thinking about volunteering for one of the seats on an advisory board. The boards and their meetings are as follows (Note: all meetings are held in the Municipal Administration Building unless otherwise noted):
  • Airport Authority meets the first Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee meets the first Thursday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Board of Zoning Adjustment and Appeals meets the third Thursday of each month at 5:00 p.m.

  • Code Enforcement Board meets the second Monday of each month at 5:00 p.m.

  • Depot Advisory Commission meets the last Monday of each month at 12:30 p.m. at the Depot Museum

  • Drug and Prostitution Related Nuisance Abatement Board meets when called

  • Historic Preservation Board meets when called – at least 4 times a year, at the Depot Museum

  • Housing Authority meets the 3rd Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. at the Housing Authority Office

  • Lakes Advisory Committee meets the second Tuesday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

  • Library Board meets the 1st Monday of each month at 11:00 a.m. at the library

  • Parks and Community Appearance Advisory Board meets the 4th Monday at 5:30 p.m.

  • Planning and Zoning Board meets the 4th Tuesday at 5:00 p.m.

  • Recreation Commission meets the 3rd Monday at 12:00 p.m.

  • Police Officers’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly, at the Police Department

  • Firefighters’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly, at the Fire Department

  • General Employees’ Retirement Board meets when called, at least quarterly
Last but not least, the 5 City Commission members receive a nominal stipend for their service. Each Commissioner spends innumerable hours preparing for and attending City Commission meetings, receiving input from citizens, attending City related meetings, and studying City matters. It is often a thankless job, and yet it is crucial to the well-being of our town. Please thank the Commissioners for all that they do for us!

The number of programs with volunteers in our community is an indicator of the vitality of our community. We are blessed with a wonderful Community Spirit in Lake Wales.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Florida City Government Week

Mayor Alex Wheeler is scheduled to proclaim October 21-27 as "Florida City Government" week. This is a multi-faceted program of the Florida League of Cities. The purpose of the designation is to inform citizens of the wide variety of work that cities accomplish and to encourage citizens to take pride in their towns.

Perhaps the city employees with the highest profile are our police officers and firefighters. They risk their lives to respond to our calls for help, and their jobs require on-going training to learn and keep up with ever-changing laws and technological advancements. Then there are new commercial buildings, meaning new pre-fire plans must be done including what chemicals are present and where, and new subdivisions and streets must be planned and named.

Another group of employees called in on an emergency basis are the water and sewer utility workers. Honestly, most of us take what they do for granted: when you turn on your faucet, you expect water. It doesn’t occur to most people that perhaps someone may have had to stay up all night fixing a water main break, or having to fix a pump that moves raw sewage to the treatment plant... just as long as the water comes on in the morning and the toilet works. The preventative maintenance activities that the city utility workers also do in this regard are also very important.

Speaking of maintenance, other maintenance duties are performed by city workers in a variety of departments, from fixing street potholes, to cutting the grass in city parks and city cemeteries, and to cleaning and making repairs on city buildings, facilities, city vehicles, and the airport.

The city’s code enforcement officers also get calls: requests to investigate complaints about abandoned buildings, trash, and tall grass and weeds. This can be a very difficult job, seeking compliance from a recalcitrant or absentee property owner. Or it can involve chasing wild chickens or feral cats. But the successful result is quite satisfying; when an abandoned building is torn down, or a rundown building is fixed up, our town is a better place.

The are several locations where city employees encourage us to take a break. As mentioned in a previous column, the library employees present a superb place for all of us to read, use computers, or borrow DVD’s or CD’s. They welcome us to a place of respite from a hectic world, as do the employees of the Recreation Department. They staff the Kirkland Gym and provide a haven for basketball and weightlifting, and they work with other recreation league leaders to offer organized play... and the Depot Museum employees provide for our town a quiet glimpse of earlier days, in the former railroad depot.

And at City Hall there are many employees who do important work in a variety of departments –Finance, Utilities, Planning and Development, Human Resources, Public Services, Information Services, Economic Development, Main Street, Purchasing and Inventory, the City Clerk’s Office, and the City Manager’s Office– all taking care of the City’s business in their fields.

The City employees carrying out all these tasks very often work under adverse conditions and less than desirable circumstances. Their work is one of the many elements it takes to make our town a wonderful place, and it merits an expression of appreciation. Everyone has a chance to do just that during City Government Week. So go ahead and surprise the next city employees you see, and give them a sincere thank-you for what they do. Their recognition is well deserved.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Lake Wales Public Library

One of the many crown jewels in Lake Wales is our wonderful public library. Located a pleasant walk from our quaint downtown, and with a beautiful view of picturesque Crystal Lake, the Lake Wales Public Library exceeds all standards of exemplary service established by the State Library of Florida and the Florida Library Association.

In short, our library provides services that one would not expect for a town our size.

Our library is a member of the Polk County Library Cooperative, which is comprised of 18 independent municipal libraries and two special libraries. The Polk County Library Cooperative is open to all citizens, both residents and non-residents alike. A library membership in the Polk County Library Cooperative also entitles you to the free use of libraries in Orange, Lake, Osceola, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee, Highlands, Citrus, DeSoto, Hernando, Pasco and Okeechobee counties.

The mission of the library is to provide informational, educational, and recreational services to the citizens, organizations and businesses of our community, striving to supply desired services as rapidly, efficiently, and courteously as possible, always recognizing that information is the foundation of an enlightened community. The history of our library, the many services, and what the future holds, are worth exploring.
The Lake Wales Public Library has served our community since 1919. The original community library was a project of the Lake Wales Woman’s Club. After outgrowing the few shelves in the clubhouse, the library moved to the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel (the Grand Hotel) downtown, and then moved to a room in City Hall.

In 1957 a group of citizens formed the Lake Wales Library Association/Friends of the Library to raise capital to build a public library. The first public library was erected at its present location in 1960, and was expanded in 1991. The Library Association also encouraged the City of Lake Wales to create a new city department: Library Services.
Library Services
Today the Lake Wales Public Library houses:
  • Over 73,000 books, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • Over 3,300 videotapes and DVD’s, available for two-week checkout.

  • Over 2,200 music CD’s, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • Over 2,300 audio books, available for up to six-week checkout.

  • A complete Spanish collection, including books, audio books, magazines, movies, children’s books and instructional aids for individuals learning English or Spanish as a second language.

  • Ten public access Internet stations. Half-hour time blocks are available with a library card.

  • A 15-minute e-mail station.

  • Wireless Internet access for library patrons who bring their own laptop – no charge. A library printer is available for a charge;

  • Telephone reference questions are answered at 678-4004, ext. 5.

  • A new service offered called B-Mail. B-Mail delivers books and library materials free of charge to the address on your library card! The Polk County Library Cooperative is one of only three library systems in Florida to offer this service. For more information call 679-4441.

  • The Schoenoff Meeting Room, located on the lower level, is one of the City’s public meeting rooms. It can accommodate 65 people. Some charges may apply.

  • Ye Olde Book Shoppe offers used books at reasonable prices. It is located just inside the entrance to the library and is open during regular library hours.
The library also has an active calendar of events including author presentations, book discussion groups, classes including French and yoga, and daily programs for children and teens.

All of these services are provided by a full and part time staff of 18 dedicated people, including five who hold a Masters Degree in Library and Information Science.
The Future
Long time librarian Tina Peak and the library staff continue to develop new programs and are always open to suggestions. Tina is also working with the library board to plan for the time when another expansion of the library will become necessary.

Additional library information is available on the City’s website at or by calling 678-4004.

We are blessed to have such a wonderful resource in our town. It is truly one of our many crown jewels!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


In this space two weeks ago the City Commission’s economic development initiatives were listed. Among these initiatives there were several references to the CRA – the City’s Community Redevelopment Agency. The CRA is the key to the City’s redevelopment efforts – downtown, on Lincoln Ave, in the Scenic Highway industrial area, in the residential rings surrounding these areas, as well as in the Longleaf Business Park and areas nearby. It is important to understand the organization of the CRA, how it is helping us, and what it will do in the future.
CRA refers to ‘Community Redevelopment Agency’, and its purpose is to address slum and blight conditions. Any city or county can adopt a CRA organization per state law Chapter 163, and there are currently 178 CRA’s across the state. The steps for adoption of a CRA include:
  • The designation of a distinct area of the City as the CRA area;

  • The adoption of a redevelopment plan that specifies how CRA funds will be spent. The plan must follow the guidelines in state law; and

  • The designation of a base year.
In the base year, the total taxable value in the CRA is frozen for the length of time the CRA is adopted, usually 30 years. As taxable value in the CRA increases with development activity or increased assessments from the County Property Appraiser’s Office, the City and the County taxes on the increase above the frozen value in the base year go to the CRA.

The CRA is governed by a board, and in Lake Wales our City Commission also sits as the CRA Board.
How it is Helping Us
As noted above, the CRA achieves two important purposes:
  1. It brings a focus to areas that are in need of redevelopment activities; and

  2. It provides funding – from both City and County funds – that is restricted to the uses outlined in the redevelopment plan.
As noted above, the Lake Wales designated CRA area is quite large. By including undeveloped areas of the City (the Longleaf Business Park and the Mayfair development on south US 27), the CRA budget can be expected to grow dramatically. In the base year of 1999, there was no development on these two properties. Now the business park has seven buildings with a total taxable value exceeding $7.5 million, and the City and County taxes on these properties go to the CRA. Development in Mayfair is anticipated to begin soon, which will continue the growth of CRA revenues. Current year CRA revenues exceed $2.6 million.

CRA funding is used for development incentives and capital improvements (such as street, water, and sewer improvements), as well as the work of several staff members and consultants involved in redevelopment efforts.
What it will do in the Future
The CRA has partnered with the Chamber’s new Redevelopment Steering Committee, and it is anticipated that this partnership will bring a new focus to the CRA: the use of funds to finance improvements that will be specifically designed to facilitate the expansion of an existing business or the location of a new business in the redevelopment area. The expansion or new business will in turn result in a higher tax base, and the higher taxes paid will go to the CRA to pay off the debt that the CRA used to finance the improvement. The key to this effort is planning, and the first of several studies to identify projects and opportunities is now underway.

The future for redevelopment in Lake Wales is very promising!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Condition of City Streets

One of the areas the City Commission is very concerned about is the condition of our city streets. Many of our streets and alleys are in need of maintenance work due to one or more fundamental problems:
  • The street was not constructed properly in the first place, with the asphalt being too thin. Two streets that fall into this category are Grove Avenue, between First and Fourth Streets, and the northern end of Carver Drive. On both streets there are numerous places where potholes were patched, and the original asphalt is very thin – about ¼ to ½ inch in some places. City specifications call for the top level of asphalt on a street to be 1 ½ inches thick (or compliance with state specifications).

  • The street was not constructed properly, with inappropriate materials. Blackwood Drive is an example of this type of problem. The underlying soil condition is seasonally moist, and in such case engineers typically call for a base material such as “soil cement” which will not break down beneath the asphalt due to the moist conditions. On this street it appears that limerock, the standard base material used for dry, well-drained soils, was used instead. This has caused the base to fail and the street surface to break up.

  • The drainage system is lacking or not working properly. This is often why potholes repeatedly turn up in the same spot. On Fourteenth Street between SR 60 and the entrance to the Sunoco station, there is a pothole that appears periodically because the drainage system for that street is inadequate. The same is true at the corner of Carlton and 12th Street.

  • The asphalt is just plain worn out. This is the case on much of Lakeshore and many other streets.

  • Most alleys were not constructed for heavy vehicles. Many alleys were built with a clay base and a layer of asphalt. This may be fine for light traffic but it will not hold up when traveled regularly by one of the heaviest trucks on the road – garbage trucks.
To address these problems, the City Commission has directed staff to step up pothole patching efforts, street sweeping with a new vehicle (which keeps drainage pipes clean), and the inspection and cleaning of drainage systems. In addition, the CRA board (consisting of the five City Commissioners) is planning to issue a bond that will include over $2 million of street re-surfacing and the application of millings (recycled asphalt stones) on some alleys. The issuance of the bond has been delayed - first due to questions on the state legislature’s tax reform package, and now there’s a second delay due to a court case in Escambia County. We all hope that question will be resolved quickly so that we can move forward.

In addition, there are a number of streets in the City that are the responsibility of other governments or CDD’s. For example, Burns Avenue is a County Road and it is scheduled to be resurfaced by the County in the 2007-08 fiscal year. Buck Moore was resurfaced last year, and Thompson-Nursery is being studied for a widening project to add another travel lane in each direction. The Lake Ashton Community Development District (CDD) is responsible for the maintenance of streets in Lake Ashton.

The State is responsible for Scenic Highway, and City staff has been working with the Florida Department of Transportation to encourage them to place a traffic signal and turning lanes at the corner of Scenic and Mountain Lake Cutoff. State staff says the intersection does not meet their criteria for a signal but they are looking into it. City staff has also asked for more lighting on SR 60 east, and this is in the design phase.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Service Upgrades in the Fire Department

The City Commission has approved major service upgrades that have been implemented by the Lake Wales Fire Department over the past two years, and more are on the way!

In May 2005, a second fire station was opened in a temporary location on Thompson Nursery Road just west of US 27. This station was opened to reduce response times to the growing northern areas of the city. We are working with a developer who intends to donate 1.5 acres on Chalet Suzanne Road for a permanent station in the future.

In February 2006, our first ladder truck went into service. The ladder has a special platform enclosure and elevates up to 70 feet high! It is used to combat fires that need an elevated water stream. One such fire occurred downtown at the corner of Wetmore and Orange in a two-story building being remodeled for a funeral home. With the advanced firefighting capability provided by the ladder truck, the fire was confined to that building. Our city also has many two- and three-story apartment buildings that house families with young children, as well as senior citizens. Our firefighters and officers have become very proficient at operating the truck and value the additional rescue ability that the ladder truck provides.

Earlier this year the department instituted an engine company inspection program. One of the biggest problems that growing communities like ours has is in the area of fire inspections and fire prevention. The Fire Marshal is very busy reviewing plans for new buildings, and, unfortunately, the older buildings are more likely to experience fires rather that newer buildings with modern sprinkler systems. Fire inspections have now been transferred to the Lieutenants on each shift, who were given a salary incentive to carry out this additional duty. Each Lieutenant has a fire inspector certification and completes inspections every Thursday. The crew creates a drawing of the building, which is completed on a computer at the main station and added to the laptop computers kept on the fire engines and in the Deputy Chief’s command vehicle. Every restaurant in the city has been inspected, and convenience stores and gas stations are next.

The department is also moving ahead with increasing the level of rescue service from "Basic Life Support" to "Advanced Life Support." At present, all of the department members are certified Emergency Medical Technicians as well as certified firefighters. Six of our firefighters are taking additional training to become "Paramedics," the certification that is commonly held by ambulance personnel. Advanced Life Support basically brings the life saving equipment from a hospital emergency room to a home or accident scene until the ambulance arrives. Over 80% of our emergency responses are related to medical emergencies and vehicle accidents, and our fire department vehicles almost always arrive before the ambulance. The only cost related to this service upgrade is the salary increase for the additional duties taken on by the six paramedics. All of the costs for medical equipment, drugs, supplies and the oversight of a medical director will be paid by Polk County.

The department also provides public education. Please call the main fire sation at 678-4203 to make arrangements for Fire Prevention and Safety Specialist Johnny Harris to make a presentation.

Fire Chief Jerry Brown extensively contributed to this article.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Committed to Economic Development

"Economic development" is a broad term referring to efforts to encourage business growth –either the expansion of existing businesses, or the attraction of new businesses. The City Commission is committed to economic development and included it as one of the six foundation statements in the City’s Strategic Plan (available of the City’s website, in the budget section.)

This commitment is linked to the recognition that the tax base of Lake Wales is out of balance when compared to other similarly sized cities. The cities of Auburndale and Haines City both have a higher valued tax base than Lake Wales for commercial and industrial property. In addition, we want to provide career jobs for our residents... and for our children when they are ready to enter the workforce.

The City Commission has taken a number of steps to enhance economic development, with more to follow:
  • The creation of the Longleaf Business Park. The park is an outstanding business address;

  • The approval of the master plan for the Mayfair development. Across from Longleaf on south US 27, this development includes a commercial center and hotel;

  • The vision for West S.R. 60. The area from West Central Avenue west to the railroad track is a future commercial/industrial area for the City. A new City water plant is being built at the airport to serve the area, and several industrial parcels have been annexed. The airport is a key factor, as improvements are being made that will help attract new businesses, and property on site not used for airport operations is being considered for potential industrial sites. Senator J.D. Alexander and the Airport Authority are advancing this project;

  • Approval of commercial development around the Eagle Ridge Mall. These approvals include the new Chili’s and Lowe’s; the building of a new Hampton Inn and Suites across from the south entrance to the Mall on US 27, and an adjacent planned shopping development; and the approval of plans for a shopping area between the Publix center and Home Depot, and across US 27 at the corner of Thompson Nursery Road;

  • Approval of the location of PCC’s (Polk Community College) branch campus downtown. The location of PCC in old city hall can also be viewed as an economic development project. A recent study of "great small towns" across the country noted that many have a downtown college presence;

  • The partnership with the Chamber of Commerce’s new Re-development Steering Committee. The Committee is off to a great start with a $25,000 donation from developer Richard Quaid, to be use for one of several area-specific studies;

  • Approval of funding to encourage neighborhood commercial uses to return to Lincoln Avenue. Kimbrough & Associates is facilitating this and other re-development efforts. A Farmer’s Market will soon open on Fridays and Saturdays at the corner of Lincoln and C Streets, and a building nearby is being renovated for a meat store;

  • Approval of site plans for new business locations on Scenic Highway. Several businesses have opened in new buildings north of Burns Avenue;

  • Consideration of a new industrial park. On September 18 the City Commission will consider the annexation of existing industrial property on Hunt Brothers Road, as well as adjacent property for a new industrial park with railroad access;

  • Approval of funding for on-going Economic Development efforts. In addition to Kimbrough & Associates, Dolly Pelletier is the City’s full-time Main Street Manager; and the City’s efforts are anchored by Economic Development Director, Harold Gallup.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Effects of Tax Reform on the City Budget

In June, the state legislature held a special session and approved a two-part tax reform package. A number of newspaper stories have appeared reporting on the effect of tax reform on various cities. In Lake Wales, the effect from Part One of the tax reform is severe. If Part Two is approved, it will amount to a fiscal train wreck.

Part one of the tax reform package requires cities and counties to cut their tax rates. (The legislature also provided a method for cities and counties to exempt themselves from the requirement, but most local governments felt that the exemption was not feasible.) The formula for the tax rate cut results in a property tax reduction of 12.89% for Lake Wales --from 8,44 mills in the current yeaar to 7.3521 mills in the new fiscal year starting October 1. (A mill is $1 of tax per $1,000 of taxable value.)

Because Lake Wales is growing, even with the rate reduction next year, the tax revenue proceeds will increase by $16,251 in the General Fund over the proceeds from the current year. But to put this in perspective, had there not been tax reform, at the current 8.44 millage rate, the General Fund would have realized $921,276 next year in additional revenue over the current year.

The problem with this relatively small increase in tax revenue next year is that other revenues are also down, and expenses continue to climb. For example, revenues other than property taxes in the City's General Fund, which include state revenue sharing and other intergovernmental revenues, are down to the same level as six years ago; and the County contract for City fire services to the unincorporated area around the City has been cut 40% below what it was two years ago.

At the same time, the City has had alarming increases in some expenses. Insurance categories in the General Fund other than health insurance have increased 31.2% in the past six years! This expenditure now tops $1 million annually. Health insurance costs have risen drastically --over 20% from the current year adopted budget. Recently the City went to bid to provide other options. Other expenses gave grown to ensure that City services are adequate to cover the growing areas of the City. Furthermore, the City is still re-building reserves from the reduction in General Fund balance in the 2000-2001 fiscal year.

Tax Reform Part One had had a severe effect on the City's proposed budget, eliminating 12 positions (one person serving in a part-time position is the only actual lay-off), and not funding $487,450 in capital outlay requests including the purchase of replacement police vehicles and a fire department truck.
This part of the program will be voted on in a statewide referendum on January 29. If approved, the General Fund would lose an estimated $683,000. When coupled with the cuts already made in Part One, there would be noticeable reductions in service.

Part One of the Legislature's tax reform package did not include schools. Taxes supporting schools will be included in Part Two.

Judy Delmar contributed to this article.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Adopting a Budget for Fiscal Year 2007-2008

Like every city and county in our state, the City of Lake Wales is deep into the process of preparing the budget for the October 1 start of the new fiscal year. Each year in August the City Commission holds one or more budget workshops, and this year a budget workshop is scheduled for Thursday, August 23, 2007, at 5:30 pm in the City Commission chambers at City Hall. The final budget is scheduled for adoption at the regular Commission meetings in September, on the 4th and 18th, at 6:30 pm at City Hall. Everyone is cordially invited to attend these and all City Commission meetings.

The preparation of the draft budget this year has been unusually challenging. The state legislature’s new Property Tax Reform law will have a drastic effect on the City’s General Fund budget. (The General Fund provides for most City services other than utilities, street repairs, and special programs like the Community Redevelopment Agency or CRA.) At the City’s current tax rate of 8.44 mills, the General Fund would have received $921,276 more than it will at the new property tax rate mandated by the state legislature. As a result, many difficult decisions will have to be made on how to best accommodate the loss of funds. The proposed budget message can be viewed on the City’s website at, and the full budget document can be reviewed at the Library or at the City Clerk’s office at City Hall. Anytime anyone has a question about the budget or city finances, City staff is always willing and able to provide the answer. Questions can be called in (678-4182 extension 225), e-mailed in through the city website, or discussed at the City Manager’s Open Forum held on the third Thursday of each month at 5 pm at the James P. Austin Jr. Community Center, 315 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

A few highlights of the Fiscal Year 2007-2008 draft budget include:
  • Property tax rate: It is anticipated that due to the tax reform, property taxes will be reduced slightly more than one mill. This year’s rate of 8.44 mills would go to 7.3521 mills next year. (A mill is equal to $1 in taxes for every $1,000 of assessed value after exemptions.) For example, a house assessed by the County Property Appraiser with a taxable value of $125,000, minus the $25,000 homestead exemption, was charged $844 this past year in City property taxes, and would be charged $735 in the upcoming budget year, a savings to the resident of $109;

  • Utility rates: Last year at this time City staff proposed raising utility rates to cover the cost of repairing our aging water and sewer facilities. The City Commission asked that staff develop a rate to assist low income persons. The City’s engineering firm has just completed a study that recommends new rates: for the lowest water users, the rates are lower than the present rates. For higher water users, the rates are higher – significantly higher for persons using more than 15,000 gallons per month. The entire utility rate study is available on the city’s website, with review copies available at the Library and at the City Clerk’s office;

  • The CRA bond issue is included in the draft budget, which will provide funds for utility and street improvements;

  • The City Commission has emphasized code enforcement, and the draft budget continues with two code enforcement officers;

  • Proposed budget cuts include the elimination of one police patrol position; the re-assignment of the museum curator and elimination of that position, and the addition of a half-time position for a net loss at the museum of a half position; and the elimination of the following items: college tuition for city employees, July 4th fireworks, Christmas decorations, most city grant programs, travel expenses, and newspaper subscriptions; and significant reductions in mowing contracts, recreation services, and capital expenditures;

  • The City budget must be viewed in the context of the City’s overall financial situation. The City ended Fiscal Year 2000-2001 with an alarmingly low cash reserve in the General Fund and has by necessity been making efforts to re-build “fund balance” every year since then. It is presently projected that just over $200,000 would be available to contribute to General Fund balance at the end of next year. At this rate, it will take us another five years or more to reach our General Fund cash reserve goal.
In most years, the budget discussions receive relatively little citizen input. This year, because of the changes proposed, City officials are encouraging more input and discussion. Your thoughts, comments, and input are most welcome.