Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The City's Utility Systems

A number of times during the year, City staff members address citizen groups on the workings of City government. During these presentations I always take time to emphasize the importance of our City utility systems: water, sewer, and re-use water. While these systems are essential for every household and business, they are also one of the fundamental keys to growth and development.

Let’s review this topic and present a progress report on where we are now and where we are headed.
Our Current Situation
The City’s water utility serves 7.644 customers and pumps over 3 million gallons of water per day. This water comes from deep wells at three City water plants (Market Street, Burns Avenue, and Grove Avenue) that are capable of pumping over 17 million gallons of water per day. However, the amount of water that can be pumped from the aquifer is regulated by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). Our current “Consumptive Use Permit” (CUP) for this purpose is capped at 3.86 million gallons per day. While we are not exceeding this limit on an average basis, the demand for water is increasing with growth. For this reason City staff began serious discussions with SWFWMD on this topic over two years ago and then submitted a request to increase the City’s CUP in December of 2006. Since then, the City Commission has taken two actions to strengthen our position to have the CUP approved:
  1. The City Commission approved a new water rate schedule that increases the price per thousand gallons as more water is used. This schedule, even more than the previous schedule, encourages water conservation; and

  2. The City Commission approved a contract with SWFWMD that provides matching funds for the construction of the first substantial re-use project (see below). Re-use water is highly treated sewer water that is not at drinking water standards but is used for irrigation, thereby reducing the amount of water pumped by the City wells.
City staff expects that with these City Commission actions, the new CUP will be approved this year.

The provision of sewer service is, in many ways, more difficult than water. At present the City operates one sewer plant in the area of US27 and SR 60, with a capacity of 1.9 million gallons per day. It is currently treating 1.2 million gallons per day. The operation of the plant is regulated by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP)

FDEP requires that when the usage of the plant reaches 80% of plant capacity, the plant owner shall begin planning for plant expansion. Currently our plant is at 63% usage, but the City Commission has already taken action and the construction plans for the first phase of plant expansion are nearly complete.
Where We are Headed
It is not unusual for a city to issue bonds for the expansion of utilities, with the new developments paying the debt service for the bonds; however, in such cases, the existing customers, in effect, “co-sign the note.” In other words, if growth does not occur at the pace predicted, the existing customers are on the hook to pay off the debt.

Our City Commission has directed that, to the greatest extent possible, existing customers shall not be saddled with this expense. Therefore, the Commission approved a system whereby new developments line up in a “queue” and wait until enough developers are ready to commit to utility expansions and guarantee payments.

It is also important to note that some developers have existing commitments for all or some of the unused capacity in both water and wastewater. The City Commission approved the City’s first formal “Concurrency System” for City utilities to track the usage and availability of water and sewer service for new development.

The process for providing water and sewer capacity, along with a well-written Land Development Code, is the key to providing quality development. The City Commission has ensured that these items are now in place without requiring the existing residents to pay the bill.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Government in The Sunshine

Recently I was eating lunch in a restaurant with a City Commissioner. A citizen came over to the table to ask, “Are you breaking the Sunshine Law?” The answer is no, and the question indicates a misunderstanding of the law. Let’s review the basics of this famous law and some of its unusual applications.
The Basics
For cities and counties, the fundamental focus of the Sunshine Law is two-fold:
  1. Two elected officials on the same board cannot discuss anything that may foreseeably come before the board for a vote unless they are at an open meeting, with reasonable notice, and with minutes being taken. This requirement also applies to boards whose members are appointed by the elected board. This law, Florida Statutes 286.011 – 286.012 and 286.26 is referred to as the Open Meetings Law; and

  2. Records of cities and counties are open for inspection unless they are specifically exempted. This law, Florida Statutes 119.01 – 119.19 and numerous exemptions in other sections of Chapter 119, is referred to as The Public Records Law or Open Records Law.
The Application of the Law
Every year the Office of the Attorney General prints a book entitled Government-In-The-Sunshine Manual. It is telling that the Open Meetings Law as reprinted in the manual is less than 5 pages; the Open Records Law is 33 pages. These sections are preceded by 177 pages of explanation and followed by 76 pages of exemptions to the laws, 17 pages of related court cases, and 81 pages of an alphabetical listing of exemptions. This seems to indicate that the basic idea of the law is straightforward –but its application takes many convoluted twists and turns to cover a wide variety of situations. The courts have been defining and redefining various aspects of the law over the years, such as what is a public record and who is covered by the Open Meetings Law. The state legislature also occasionally makes changes in the law –hence the need for a new and updated manual every year.

Consider the following examples:
  • The Open Meetings Law does not apply to committees appointed only for “fact-finding,” to homeowners’ associations, or to federal agencies. Meetings of staff members are normally not subject to the law; however, a group of staff members meeting as a committee that has delegated authority is subject to the law. Perhaps the area of the law with the most inquiries involves whom the law applies to.

  • Another interesting issue arises with written reports: the use of a written report by one commissioner to inform other commissioners of a subject which will be discussed at a public meeting is not a violation –as long as prior to the meeting there is no interaction related to the report among the commissioners who wrote the memo. The report, however, is subject to the Open Records Law.

  • A city manager, county manager, or school superintendent may meet with individual elected board members –but may not circulate the thoughts of one member to another.
Open records laws are worldwide phenomena. Wikipedia –the free encyclopedia on the internet –reports that Sweden’s Freedom of Press Act of 1766 is thought to be the oldest such law dealing with open records. In Florida, the roots of the present Open Records Law go back to 1909. On the federal level, the Freedom of Information Act was enacted in 1966.

Florida was the first state to pass an open meeting law in 1967. While all of the other states now have such a law, their provisions vary.

The state attorney general’s website – www.myfloridalegal.com – has an extensive section on Florida’s Government-In-The-Sunshine Law from which most of this material was taken.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Projects Update

The budget approved by the City Commission for the 2007-2008 fiscal year contains a number of capital projects. Let’s take a look at some of the most anticipated projects and get an update:
  • Soccer/Multi-Purpose Complex: Located on Hunt Brothers Road between US 27 and the Scenic Highway, east of the Longleaf Business Park, this complex is scheduled to open in the spring. It will have four soccer/multi-purpose fields, two of which will be lighted. It also features a concession stand/restroom/storage building, and a playground area. Uses for the complex will include youth soccer hosted by the Ridge Soccer League. This project is funded by a combination of grants from Polk County, the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program (FRDAP), and the Breakfast Rotary Club, with City recreation impact fees. The property was donated by Feltrim Developments NA Inc, the developer of the “Mayfair” mixed-use development to be located nearby.

  • Selected street re-surfacing in the historic area of the City: A number of streets will be re-surfaced with proceeds from a bond issued by the City’s Community Re-Development Agency. The list of streets will be finalized at a special City Commission tour on Saturday, January 26, at 9 am.

  • City Swimming Pool: The City Commission set aside $1 million from the sale of the City’s property at the corner of US 27 and Hunt Brothers Road for the building of the swimming pool. Since that time City staff has been working with an investor who has expressed an interest in building the locker room area for the pool. It is anticipated that within the next two to four months a final decision will be made as to the location of the project and the schedule for completion.

  • Improvements to the Boat Ramp on Lake Wailes: This project is funded by a $50,000 FRDAP grant. The plans for the boat ramp improvements have been submitted for state approval and it is anticipated that work will begin in the next 120 days.

  • Skate Park at Kiwanis Park: This project is also funded by a $50,000 FRDAP grant. The plans are being finalized and will soon be forwarded to the State for approval.

  • Elimination of street flooding on First Street north of the railroad tracks: This project is currently underway and involves the construction of a stormwater pipe near the railroad down to Lake Worth behind the Austin Center. It is funded from a portion of the funds from a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and should be completed in the next four months.

  • The Southside Force Main: Construction of this long-anticipated project began last week. It involves the installation of a new sewer force main from the Wal-Mart area west along portions of Grove Ave to Miami Street, and it will divert some of the flow that goes through the piping around Lake Wailes and will serve new developments on Buck Moore Road and south of SR 60. This $2,500,000 project is funded by a line of credit to be repaid by sewer impact fees from new development.

  • The Extension of Grove Ave, from Minnesota to 11th Street: The building of this section of Grove Avenue, and the construction of a sidewalk on Marietta Avenue from Grove Avenue to SR60, were commitments requested from (and agreed to by) the developer of the nearby “Whispering Ridge” subdivision and approved by the City Commission. The road project awaits a property swap that has to be approved by a federal government agency. This section of road will complete the re-building of Grove Avenue and its extension to 9th Street that was completed several years ago with funding from a $750,000 CDBG and additional CRA funds.
With the exception of the City Swimming Pool and the possible exception of the last item, it is anticipated that all of the above projects will be completed by September 30, the last day of the City’s fiscal year.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Mark Your Calendar

Each month the City hosts a number of regularly scheduled meetings. The month of January will be particularly busy with the addition of special events and additional meetings. All of this activity indicates that our town is at the threshold of a great year, a year in which a number of projects that were mere conjecture not so long ago are getting closer to reality!

The regular meetings and special events planned for our busy January include the following:
  • Wednesday January 9, 5 p.m., City Hall: The City Planning and Zoning Board will host a public hearing to make a recommendation to the City Commission on a comprehensive plan amendment for school facility planning.

  • Thursday January 10, 5:30 p.m.: City staff will discuss the proposal for a fire assessment fee to be levied to all properties within the city limits;

  • Saturday January 12, 2 p.m., Lake Wales High School: Board of County Commission representatives will host a forum on the January 29 tax reform vote;

  • Monday January 14, 5 p.m., City Hall: Code Enforcement meeting

  • Tuesday January 15, 6 p.m., City Hall: regular meeting of the City Commission. The agenda is scheduled to include the fire assessment fee.

  • Friday January 18, 11:45 a.m., First Baptist Church: The topic of the Chamber lunch meeting will be the “State of the City” address, with a look at the achievements of 2007 and the prospects for 2008. This presentation will feature views of downtown using the latest computerized mapping software.

  • Friday evening, January 18, downtown: Friday Night Live!!!

  • Monday January 21, 11:00 a.m., James P. Austin Jr. Community Center – a program of activities to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The parade will begin at 3 p.m. from this location and go past Roosevelt Academy and up Lincoln Ave to A street, and around to First Street.

  • Wednesday January 23, 6:00 p.m. at Lake Wales High School: City staff will hold an open forum on the January 29th tax reform vote featuring a video from the Florida League of Cities;

  • Thursday January 24, 6 p.m., Lake Wales Art Center: a repeat of the open forum held January 23.

  • Saturday, January 26, 9 a.m., beginning at City Hall: The City Commission will tour the areas where funds from the CRA bond will be used to re-surface streets, address drainage problems, and re-build utility lines;

  • Monday, January 28, 5:30 p.m. at City Hall: The regular meeting of the Parks and Community Appearance Board will discuss improvements at Crystal Lake Park and parking near the Pram Fleet Building.

  • Tuesday January 29, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., at the locations listed below: Statewide presidential primary election and tax reform referendum. Polling places include:

    • B Street Community Center - 230 B Street

    • Lake Ashton Clubhouse - 4141 Ashton Club Dr

    • First Methodist Church - 230 N 5th St

    • Holy Spirit Catholic Church - 644 9th St South

    • James P. Austin Jr. Community Center - 315 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Please call the County Supervisor of Elections office for further information on the election.