Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Backflow Prevention

The City of Lake Wales Utility Department recently sent letters to a number of businesses setting a deadline for the installation of backflow preventers. These devices prevent a reverse flowing of water from the business into the City water system and are required by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. From the inquiries being called in to City Hall, there are some questions as to what the devices do, who can install them, and why they are needed. Let’s take a look at this timely topic.
So just what is a Backflow Prevention Device?
In the City water system, water normally flows under pressure from the well at the water plant through water pipes to the City water customers around town. As noted above, a backflow preventer prevents a reverse flow of water, where water could possibly flow backwards from a customer and back into the system. (This backflow is sometimes referred to as a “cross connection.”) That sounds impossible, but there are some very rare situations in which it could happen. One such situation is in fighting large fires. The fire truck arrives and places a large and sudden demand for water on the system in a particular location. Let’s imagine that a nearby business owner is getting ready to clean his building and needs to use a special concentrated chemical solvent for this purpose. He has placed the concentrated solvent in a 55 gallon drum, and has a hose in the drum to fill it up. The hose is underwater, and if there were a drastic and sudden demand for water - such as in fighting a large fire – the water from the drum could be sucked out of the drum and into the water system.

Such a scenario would be very rare and has not ever happened in Lake Wales to my knowledge. But the state agency that regulates all water utility operations across the state has determined that this is a possible hazard that must be addressed. There are a variety of backflow prevention devices, ranging from an inexpensive device that can be placed on a homeowner’s faucet, to large and elaborate devices to ensure water safety in a high hazard business use.

The basic means of preventing backflow is an air gap, which is simply a vertical, physical separation between the end of a water supply outlet and the flood-level rim of a receiving vessel. There are also a variety of mechanical backflow preventers, which provide a physical barrier to prevent the possibility of a backflow. Some of these devices are costly, involving two independently acting, spring loaded check valves.

Who can install them?
As prescribed by the state, only a state certified backflow prevention installer can install the devices. Once they are installed, state regulations require that some types of the devices must be inspected and maintained annually by a state certified backflow prevention inspector.

Why do we do this?
Ordinance 96-06 describing the City’s backflow prevention program was approved in 1996 and now appears in Section 21-72 of the City Code. This ordinance refers to rules in the Florida Administrative Code as the basis for the ordinance. The ordinance prohibits cross connections in the public water system and requires that all connections have a type of backflow device depending upon the hazard present from the particular water user, as determined by the City’s Utilities Director.

Additional information is available from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection website: www.dep.state.fl.us/water/drinkingwater/bfp.htm

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Public Information Sources

In the aftermath of hurricanes Charley, Frances, and Jeanne four years ago, one of the many problems that we faced was finding a way to reach the public with critical information. The problem was especially acute after Charley, as the post-hurricane experience was so new and different for most of us. There was no electricity for days, and we needed to alert everyone that there were water, ice, and supplies available at city hall. It struck me that there really is no one way to alert citizens to essential information. We then came up with the idea of posting temporary signs around the city and distributing flyers door to door. It wasn’t long before there were cars lined up around the block to come through the supply line.

It has occurred to me more recently that we are thoroughly blessed to have so many cultural events right here in town to choose from. We also have many different organizations and committees that all have meetings going on in various locations around the city. The question is, how do we learn about all of these events? It is neither practical nor legal to have temporary signs all over town, just as we did after the hurricanes. So where do we look to find out what events and meetings are scheduled, and where? And do these outlets meet your needs for this information?

Three Sources for General Information
I have found that there are three sources of general information about the events and meetings that occur in our town:

  1. The Lake Wales News: a section of this paper lists “Community and Area Events,” organized by the sponsoring organization. A sampling of the events listed in the last issue of this paper includes events at The Arts Center, the James P. Austin Community Center, the B Street Center, Bok Tower Gardens, the Care Center’s Youth Coffee House, and the Library. The events listed tend to be cultural and educational in nature.

  2. The Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce website (lakewaleschamber.com): This site lists events in a calendar format, listing a number of events each day. Many of the events are similar to those found in the newspaper.

  3. City of Lake Wales website (cityoflakewales.com): A new feature of the City’s website lists “Meetings, Events, Free Activities, and Notices.”
That we have three dependable sources of general information for events and meetings may seem to be adequate… but is it? Not everyone reads the newspaper, and not everyone has easy access to the internet (the library does has 12 public access internet stations). So what other methods of publicizing information are available?

Television and Radio
The first medium that comes to mind is television. While visiting relatives in another state years ago, I noticed that there was one channel that was simply called a “Community Bulletin Board.” Notices of meetings and events were listed, scrolling down the screen.

We have two cable television services serving different parts of our town. I went on the Comcast website and found a reference to their Community Calendar service. The site invites you to enter your zip code to see if the service is available in your area… but when I entered our zip code the website informed me that this service is not available to us.

In checking the Brighthouse website, I could not find where they have such a service.

For radio listeners, there is a show on WIPC (am 1280, on the web at WIPC1280@yahoo.com) hosted by Rev. Lawrence Epps on Sundays from 8am to 10am. Rev. Epps has been hosting this radio program since 1978. He makes many announcements of upcoming events during his gospel music program, including many church meetings and functions, as well as family and class reunions, birthdays, and special requests.

The other programs on WIPC are in Spanish, and event and meeting announcements are given throughout the day.

In summary, are your needs for event and meeting information being met? Or do you sometimes say, “I wish I had known about that.” If you have any suggestions on this topic please let me know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

City Planning

One of the keys to a healthy community with a high quality of life is good planning for the use of land. This planning effort includes both public property, such as parks, as well as private property that is scheduled for development. Good planning must determine the best future land uses, as well as the provision of roads and utilities. Let’s take a look at some of the planning that has been recently completed or is in process for the benefit of our town.

Before the recent proposals for the renovation of the Grand Hotel were received, the City’s CRA board gave $25,000 to the Chamber’s CRA Steering Committee to conduct a study downtown. The money had been donated to the CRA by Richard Quaid for this purpose, and the study focused on the area around the Grand Hotel.

Contract negotiations have commenced with the selected firm, Dixie Walesbilt LLC, for the renovation of the Grand Hotel. This project is scheduled to be done in concert with the downtown plan.

Park Planning
City staff is working with representatives of Bok Tower Gardens, Green Horizon Land Trust, and others to develop a trail network. Developers who have projects along the network will be requested to construct links as a part of their sidewalk/parks requirements.

Planning has been completed for a renovation of Kiwanis Park, and a grant application has been submitted for funding. Parking lot reconstruction, baseball field reconfiguration, trees, benches, and restroom gates are included in the plan.

Comp Plan Amendments
The City’s Planning and Development staff is working to update the Capital Improvements Element of the Comprehensive Plan. This element outlines what facilities will be needed to serve growth and how they will be paid for. The City already has in place a menu of “impact fees” that are charged to new developments for this purpose.

City staff is also working with the Planning Board on the “evaluation and appraisal report,” which is an evaluation of the Comprehensive Plan.

The “East Polk Road Study” is being conducted by Polk County in an area that extends from Haines City to Frostproof, east of US 27. Some of the recommendations that are currently under review include:
  • The extension of Venus Lake Blvd in Hunter’s Glen (north of Peddler’s Pond on US 27) to CF Kinney Rd

  • The extension of CF Kinney Rd to Starr Blvd at Home Depot

  • A new road connecting Starr Blvd going south to Chalet Suzanne Rd, across from the western-most entrance to the Eagle Ridge Mall. A traffic signal is proposed for that intersection

  • The extension of Hickory Hammock Road to US 27

  • A new road connecting Scenic Highway to US 27, north of Mountain Lake Cutoff Road

  • A new street connecting Burns Ave at Scenic to Wiltshire to make a connection to US 27

There are a number of other recommendations in this study that can be viewed at ftp://ftp.glatting.com/ with the network password of Polk.

Selected Area Studies (SAS)
A number of “selected area studies” are being conducted by Polk County. These studies recommend future land uses and services to developing areas:
  1. East Polk SAS – this study includes the City of Dundee and a portion of Lake Wales in the area of Lake Annie, Waverly, and Tindal Camp Road;

  2. Southeast Polk SAS – this study includes the area south of SR 60, and east of US 27. City Planning Board Chairman Chris Lutton is serving on the focus group for this study.

  3. Gateway area SAS – this study covers the area to be impacted by the CSX development in Winter Haven. The area is west of US 27 along SR 60. Masterpiece area SAS – This study is proposed for the area including Chalet Suzanne Road and Masterpiece Road, east of US 27. City staff is working with the County on the scope of work and an interlocal agreement for the County to reimburse the City for the study.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Update on FDOT projects

This week is a holiday grab bag of items. Let’s start with a welcome, a quick update on FDOT planned activities, and a reply to the letter in Saturday’s paper on debt.

We were sad to see Sylvia Edwards leave last July to become the Finance Director of Sanibel. The City now welcomes our new Finance Director, Dorothy Pendergrass. Dorothy’s experience includes working as the Finance Director for the cities of Deltona, Florida and Monett, Missouri. She also has seven years’ experience as a public auditor. She has a BA in Business Administration and has held a Missouri CPA license for 13 years. Welcome, Dorothy!

Road and Street Projects
Many people are not aware that planning and maintenance responsibility for streets in our town is shared between the City, the County, and the State depending on the particular street. Most streets and alleys are the City’s responsibility. Certain streets, including Buck More Road, Burns Ave, South 9th Street (south of the railroad tracks), South 11th St, and Hunt Brothers Road are the County’s responsibility. The State, through its Department of Transportation (FDOT), is responsible for State Road(SR) 60, SR 17 (Scenic Highway), and US 27.

The FDOT 5 year Capital Improvement Program lists a number of projects in our area:

  • SR 60, construction of medians between 11th St and Capps Road: FDOT staff is planning to conduct an open house meeting with the anticipated date to be in early February. The plan for this project is available for review in the Planning and Development office at City Hall.
  • SR 60 re-surfacing projects:
    • Scenic Highway overpass to 11th Street;
    • Peace Creek to US 27
  • Scenic Highway: Two sections of Scenic Highway are scheduled for resurfacing:
    • Starr Ave. to Waverly Road; and
    • Ray Martin Rd. through downtown to Mt. Lake Cutoff Rd.
  • Scenic Highway drainage improvements are planned between Seminole and Osceola Aves. City staff is working with FDOT staff on this project.

Planning continues on the intersection at Scenic Highway and Mt. Lake Cutoff Road.

City Commissioners and staff have been involved in several of the FDOT projects (as well as the county projects) to urge those agencies to take action. For example, the construction of the traffic signal at Scenic Highway and Mt. Lake Cutoff Road has been a high priority for the City for years. This project involves funding from both the state and the county, a request for a property donation from the Mountain Lake Corporation to accommodate turn lanes in all directions, and continued monitoring by FDOT staff to determine if that intersection meets all FDOT requirements for a traffic signal.

Other Projects
Recently the City Commission approved an agreement with FDOT to provide an upgrade of the railroad crossing at South 9th Street. This railroad crossing, just south of the Whispering Ridge subdivision, crosses south 9th Street at an unusual angle. The improved crossing will have flashing lights and cross arms and will be installed by the railroad. The City and the railroad will share the annual maintenance for the crossing, with the City’s portion initially capped at $1,573 annually plus future cost adjustments.

A Reply to a letter in Saturday’s paper
A letter in Saturday’s paper again questioned debt figures and information I provided in last week’s column. All of the information provided in that column is accurate and responsive to the earlier letter. The date I used for discussing the City’s principal balance is the first reporting date after I arrived in July, 2001, and all of that debt was in place before my arrival. Again, this and other financial information is available on the City’s website, http://www.cityoflakewales.com/.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

City Debt Level

Last Wednesday’s edition of this paper published a letter to the editor concerning the City’s level of debt and how it has changed over the last seven years. Unfortunately, the conclusions presented were based on a flawed analysis of numbers in existing documents. A meaningful comparison of financial schedules from one time period to another requires an “apples to apples” comparison. Let’s take a quick look at the City’s debt and what has changed over the last seven years.

The Basics of City Debt
When we talk about City debt, we are referring to money that the City has borrowed and must pay back over a period of time. The City’s “payback” is divided into principal payments and interest payments, with the principal being the amount of money borrowed in a particular loan. The term “principal balance of debt” refers to what part of the principal is left to pay back at a given point of time and does not include interest to be paid.

City of Lake Wales Debt at October 1, 2001
On October 1, 2001, the principal balance of City debt was $25,584,934. (The letter writer stated that it was $18,845,000…?) The money borrowed went to pay for a number of items including the new City Hall, the new fire station, a new fire truck, a wastewater collection alarm system, and a wastewater system upgrade.

City of Lake Wales Debt at October 1, 2008
On October 1, 2008 the principal balance of City debt was $33,215,612… a 30% increase, not “nearly double” as the letter writer claimed. Additional City debt in the seven year period includes:
  • Two short term loans for two new fire trucks, replacing worn-out fire trucks;
  • A lease-purchase for new police and fire radios, replacing obsolete radios; and
  • Two projects to upgrade the wastewater treatment plant.
Debt Service
The term “debt service” refers to the amount of principal and interest payments to be made in a fiscal year.

In the current fiscal year, total City debt service is budgeted at $3,847,134, of which the CRA will pay $752,381. For the next fiscal year, the total debt service will be about $4,000,000, with the CRA again paying a significant share. The exact amount of the total debt service next year depends on the drawdown of the wastewater improvement line of credit and the structuring of that loan, which is scheduled for October 1, 2009. The letter writer quoted a figure of “over $6,000,000,” which is incorrect.

The Sunshine Law
So how did the letter writer get off track? Simply by not asking questions. The Sunshine Law requires that nearly every document in City Hall is open for review. (Records not open include items like police officer and code enforcement officer home addresses, etc.) However, the law does not require city staff to do research to create records. For example, someone once asked for the amount of City funds spent to host the Mardi Gras celebration over the last twenty years. That number does not exist in a single report, but the person interested in that figure is welcomed to dig through 20 years of City budgets to determine that number… City staff is not required to assemble a report.

That is apparently what happened in this case. The letter writer asked for information on debt. Without asking any questions, it appears that the letter writer assumed that a debt report 8 years ago included the same type of information that it did in last year’s report. The report format had changed over time, and hence the analysis was flawed. In addition, the $6,000,000 figure for next year’s debt service incorrectly assumes the City would pay off a wastewater line of credit in one year rather than using an amortization schedule with payments over time.

There is a tremendous amount of information available about City operations on the City website (http://www.cityoflakewales.com/) or at City Hall. Asking a few questions is also a good idea.