Friday, January 1, 2010

Top ten stories of 2009

Highlands Today staff

In an upshot, if 2009 made us all a little poorer, it also made us all cleaner and more hygiene-oriented.

It brought heartaches, joy and astonishment to Highlands County residents. It also brought closure to the family of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper ruthlessly killed while on duty.

The economy continued to roil; residents endured not one but three anthrax hoaxes; ordinary residents prodded city hall into action in Venus and Sun 'n Lake, and swine flu got us all a little closer to sanitizers.

ONE: Economic woes multiply
SEBRING The Great Recession exacerbated idleness for a second year in 2009 with falling home prices and greater unemployment, bankruptcies, foreclosures and poverty.
When 2008 dawned, Florida's unemployment rate was a healthy 4.7 percent. Only 441,000 were looking for work, and the state boasted about the 85,800 jobs added in the previous year.

In Highlands County, the unemployment rate was just 5.3 percent; our population was growing. We felt invincible.

Then, the housing-banking bubble burst. The latest numbers: sluggishness in building and trade sectors pushed local unemployment to 11.7 percent – its highest level since May 1975, when Gerald Ford was president. Florida 284,800 lost jobs.

Businesses downsized workforces. The state, the county, the cities, the court clerk, even the post office shrank. Lake Placid combined routes. The Sebring office didn't replace several workers.

Unfed masses
Among the alarming numbers were breadwinners who needed food stamps to put dinner on the table. In Highlands County, the numbers doubled in two years, from 7,785 moms, dads and kids on public assistance in December 2007 to 14,056 in November 2009. Nineteen percent of Highlands County people are now on state assistance.

"These are not the customers we saw before," said Liesta Sykes, community relations manager at the Sebring office. "They lost individual income recently due to layoffs and shutdowns."

In the inflationary economy, everything went up: milk, orange juice, peanut butter. The price of gasoline blazed from $2.60 to $4.15 in 2008, but thankfully subsided to $2.65 by the close of 2009.

By Thanksgiving, Church Service Center in Avon Park fed 700 families a month – 25 percent more than last year. In Lake Placid, Manna Ministries gave food to 480 of the poorest families in the southern half of Highlands County.

The sheer numbers of people who now beg for their food is disquieting even to food pantry directors, who see people line up every day for a handout.

"We spend most of our time making the new clients feel comfortable," said Bill Stephenson at Church Service Center in Avon Park. "They're embarrassed and ashamed about holding out their hand. Some of them won't stand in line because of their own personal pride."

Some people surrendered. By mid-year, bankruptcy filings were up 40 percent over the previous year.

"It's going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better," attorney Gary Gossett predicted in April.

Some people bought guns. The recession is reportedly why the number of concealed weapon permits in Highlands shot from 15 a month in 2003 to an average of 135 a month in 2009. Three out of every 100 Floridians are permitted to pack heat — 608,000 total.

Some people lost their homes. In 2008, a record 1,181 foreclosures were recorded. About 1,500 were expected before 2009. Abandoned houses doubled the number of open code enforcement cases in Highlands County.

Some people sleep in their cars. It's a sign, economists have been saying, that unemployment has expanded into the middle class.

"It brings you up short," said Stephenson, uneasiness apparent in his voice.
Budget cuts Plummeting retail sales and land values made budgets a moving target. Lower taxes were a godsend to homeowners, but for governments, declining property values were the devil.

Property Appraiser Raymond McIntyre said local residential property values went down 15 to 20 percent. In real dollars, $9 million was taken from Highlands County's $164 million budget. Even so, local governments held the line against higher taxes.

Instead, budgets were cut. Highlands County deleted the $11.5 million line item for a new sheriff's office on George Boulevard, and 27 county employees were laid off. Court clerks were furloughed.

None was hit harder than the Highlands County building department. After the 2004 hurricanes and the speculative housing tsunami of 2005, S.Y. Moseley Jr.'s office nailed a respectable $1.36 million in revenues.

Until 2007. "It was like somebody shut off the water valve," Moseley said. Income deconstructed to $400,000 in 2009. The number of clerks and inspectors shrank from 14 to seven.

Tourism and immigration were affected. Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew Hispanic Center, non-partisan researcher told USA Today for a July 21 story that 30 to 50 percent fewer Mexicans came to the U.S. — legally or illegally — in 2008, compared with 2006.

That leaves citrus growers like Ben Albritton wondering if there will be enough pickers.

"It's too early to tell," Albritton said. "We'll know after the first of the year."
Even so, Florida grew. Despite an exodus of nearly 32,000 residents to other states, Florida's population rose by 114,091 during the year ending July 1, 2009. One reason: an influx of 87,381 international immigrants and a natural increase of 58,169 as births outnumbered deaths for the year, the Census Bureau said.

Recession mode
Conversely, RV parks and fishing resorts are doing well in a poor economy. Snowbirds ignored the 50 percent freefall in their stock market-based IRAs, and made winter reservations in Highlands County.

"My park is already full for next year," Mary Cassidy in April. She and her husband, Edward, manage Whispering Pines Village on Brunns Road, a few blocks south of Lakeshore Mall.

People coped. Restaurants tempted customers with sweet deals. McDonald's Wendy's, Denny's, Burger King, Arby's, DQ, Subway, Red Lobster, Captain D's — all offered recession specials.

At Woody's Bar-B-Q, there are seven luncheon specials. Nearly every customer who walks in will order one. Said general manager Rodney Horton, "It's helped tremendously."

Commissioners hoped to spur a new building boom, and suspended impact fees in July. It's impossible to know whether the moratorium helped or the economy improved, but by December, permits were up to two a week.

TWO: Residents scramble to fight swine flu
SEBRING In recent years, no illness stirred up as much talk and worry among people locally like the swine flu.

Whether the vaccines were safe, who should get them, when they would arrive and if it was safe to keep our children in schools, were just some of the concerns of residents.

The swine flu hit the United States in April, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They listed the most vulnerable groups as children under 5 years, the elderly and pregnant women.

Highlands County had its first confirmed case of swine flu on May 20, when a 4-year-old boy tested positive for H1N1.

Four months later, the county's first and only confirmed swine flu death was 14-year-old Marquis Hamilton. Hamilton's symptoms seemed to have developed overnight.
The junior varsity football player had complained of fever and stomach aches. The next day, Sept. 11, he died in Highlands Regional Medical Center.

The county also is awaiting confirmation by the medical examiner's office on a 60-year-old man who died and tested positive for H1N1.

Tom Moran, Highlands County Health Department official, said the cause of death has not been confirmed but they should be receiving a final report in about three weeks.
According to Moran, the county began requesting vaccines in October but short supplies by the manufacturer led to delays nationwide.

Like other county health departments, they received and distributed them to local doctors and clinics in small allotments to the higher risk groups.

"It took longer than expected. We had to cancel the first clinics because we didn't have the vaccines," Moran said.

The first clinic was opened in November for the higher risk groups. When more shipments of vaccines arrived, they opened it to the general public.

An estimated 5,249 people were administered the vaccine in Highlands County. The health department said that's 31 percent of the vaccines exported to the county.

THREE: County faces not one, but three anthrax hoaxes
SEBRING Highlands County was not the anthrax hoax capital of the United States, but in 2009, it sure felt that way.

There were three such hoaxes this year and each one kept residents on their toes, but none more so than the first.

On April 2, a nurse at Florida Hospital Heartland Division found an envelope under the windshield wiper of her vehicle at 2 a.m. Inside was a white substance and a note indicating it was anthrax.

The hospital was put on lockdown and remained that way for more than 12 hours. As the day progressed, more envelopes were found in the mailboxes of Sun 'n Lake residents and in the neighborhood east of U.S. 27 across from Sun 'n Lake.

Local, state and federal agencies ended up recovering around 80 envelopes, with 48 of them on windshields at the hospital. The substance tested negative for anthrax.
Jerron Mario Moffitt, 21, was charged with 76 counts of possession of a hoax weapon of mass destruction in connection with the hoax. He is next scheduled for a Jan. 20 pretrial conference.

A co-defendant, Cele Pete Carmona, 20, pleaded no contest to one count of possession of a hoax weapon of mass destruction. Per the agreement, he was placed on five years probation and must complete 100 hours of community service.

The second hoax came in July, when the Highlands County Sheriff's Office was evacuated after two envelopes containing a suspicious white powder arrived in the mail.

Approximately 40 employees were evacuated from the first and second floors shortly after the envelopes arrived. Again, the powder tested negative and a suspect, Cally-Jo Richardson, was arrested in connection with the hoax.

Finally, in October, a hazardous materials team was sent to the Lakeshore Mall movie theater around 8:30 p.m. after another mysterious white powder was found inside a roll of quarters.

The theaters were evacuated and the substance was sent to Tampa for testing and came back negative for the presence of anthrax or some other biochemical.

No arrests were made and no investigation was started.

FOUR: Sottile's murderer gets death
BARTOW Polk County Judge J. Michael Hunter formally sentenced Joshua Lee Altersberger to death in June for the Jan. 12, 2007 killing of Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nicholas Sottile.

Altersberger pleaded guilty March 13 to shooting Sottile during a Highlands County traffic stop. On April 2, a Polk County jury recommended on a 9-3 vote that the defendant receive the death penalty.

His guilty plea came three days before jury selection was to begin in his trial. A panel of 12 was still chosen to hear testimony before deciding whether Altersberger should receive life or death.

Over four days of testimony, victim impact statements and comments from family members in late March and early April, much was learned about the two men whose paths crossed tragically on that day in January 2007.

Sottile was described as a man dedicated to his friends, colleagues and family.
"My dad was all about our family," said daughter Heather Sottile, when giving her victim impact statement.

Altersberger's home life was in direct contrast to Sottile's. He was born under tragic circumstances, the result of his mother being raped by a man she called her friend.

When the recommendation was read, Rosalie Altersberger, the defendant's mother, sat in the audience and grasped the hand of her youngest daughter.

Altersberger's case is continuing through the Polk County court system. At his formal sentencing, his attorney told Hunter he wished to withdraw from the plea by claiming bad advice that led to his pleading guilty.
The case has since been continued.

FIVE: Former AP officer charged in toddler's death
AVON PARK Former Avon Park Police Officer James Parker was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in connection with the death of 22-month-old Kaedyn Short.

On March 29, Parker, then 32, and on the Avon Park Police force, was reportedly watching the child while her mother, Jennifer Short, was at work.

Parker and Short brought the child to the Highlands Regional Medical Center emergency room on March 29. Doctors told authorities that the toddler suffered several
skull fractures and had multiple bruises over her body.

The child was transferred to All Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg and died May 27 in a hospice home.

The former officer entered a not guilty plea on July 27 to the charges of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse.

At Parker's Dec. 10 pretrial conference, a continuance was granted with the next court date set for March 18.

Jennifer Short, 28, was indicted in June on felony counts of failure to report child abuse and neglect of a child causing great bodily harm.

Also in June, Sara J. Vasquez, 25, of Zolfo Springs and Linda L. Payne, 39, of Sebring, were both indicted for misdemeanor failure to report child abuse. The two worked at the daycare Kaedyn Short attended, according to the Highlands County Sheriff's Office.

SIX: Sheriff's office gets new digs
SEBRING Some personnel with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office got new digs this year at a spanking new building at Liberty Star Plaza, on the corner of South George Boulevard and U.S. 27.

Citing the tough economy, county commissioners put the kibosh on plans for a new $11 million building that was to go up just a few hundred yards away from Liberty Star Plaza.

The new building encompasses about 9,000 square feet, with an additional 2,000 square feet for storage, according to a prior report.

It holds the sheriff's criminal investigations unit, patrol deputies, special investigations unit, crime scene investigators, detectives and their secretaries, about 110 people.

By the way, the star was on the new plaza building long before the sheriff's move, and is just there by a nice coincidence, said Lisa Burley, the sheriff's chief of staff.

"I think it's working out well," said Burley on Monday. "We've had a lot of positive comments from the public about the location. They like the visibility and access and our troops seem to really like it, too. So we're making the best of bad situation. That's a pretty good outcome."

The search for a new space had been ongoing for several months.

In July, Sheriff Susan Benton told the commissioners she was interested in renting the first floor of the three-story Sun Trust Bank building in downtown Sebring.
That move could have cost about $2.5 million more for renovating and equipping the building to meet the sheriff's needs. The Liberty building needed $261,000 to complete, a previous report stated.

Burley said the smelly old section where much of the sheriff's staff was moved from is scheduled to be checked out by an engineering firm for an "indoor environmental quality evaluation" to take samples for airborne microbes.

There have been problems in the outdated building with the sickening aroma of sewage and possibly mold.

The old building still houses records, civil, warrants, 911, information technology, legal, internal affairs, and administration.

Plans remain to invest $1.3 million in the old building, "just to keep us functional," said Burley, as well as plans to spend $400,000 in the Emergency Operations Center for a secondary 911 backup system.

SEVEN: Commissioners veto Eagle war games plan
SEBRING The battle over the Eagle National Security Training Center started July 17, 2008 when Seth Ellis showed up at a Highlands County commissioners meeting, asking for expedited approval to build on the 7,696-acre Southern Farms.

Hoping for 250 jobs, the commissioners initially approved the request. It was sailing through the process until August, when environmentalists and residents of the Venus community finally heard about it. Two residents hadn't been legally notified, so the notification and permitting process started again.

Word was passed in the community. Eagle wanted a 6,000-foot runway, a rifle and pistol range, machine guns, a shoot house, buildings half the size of Lakeshore Mall, up to 1,000 students, and 250-foot-tall training towers.

A year after the project was proposed, more than a dozen angry residents came to Planning and Zoning meeting and made their opposition known.

Then, on Sept. 24, 200 opponents gathered at Venus Community Center. They hoped for answers from Bert Harris III, the attorney for Greg Eagle, a Cape Coral real estate developer who wanted to spend $425 million to build the facility. Harris and Ron Grigsby, the owner of Southern Farms, refused to speak.

At two commission meetings, Venus residents filled the Highlands County Government Center auditorium and convinced the commissioners, who voted 5-0 and killed the project.

At the November hearing, Grigsby said Eagle – who lost several million on 2009 real estate deals – was now only peripherally involved.

Grigsby is appealing. Administrative law Judge J. Lawrence Johnston in Tallahassee has given the county, the Department of Community Affairs and Southern Farms until Jan. 5 to decide on a stipulated settlement agreement, even though the county commissioners have already voted against the deal.

EIGHT: Stimulus money keeps some school jobs afloat
SEBRING Last year, the School Board of Highlands County cut about 67 teaching positions. This year, another 65 were cut, the casualty of declining enrollment and state funding cuts.

It could have been worse without federal stimulus money. Sixty-nine regular teaching positions and 25 exceptional student education teaching slots were saved with these dollars.

But the stimulus money covers a two-year period, after which funding from another source will be needed to pay the 31 physical education teachers, 18 music/band/chorus teachers, three high school art teachers and 17 media specialists, among others.
By changing to a common planning schedule in the middle and high schools, the district cut 42 teaching positions, but teachers quickly expressed their dissatisfaction with what they described as a stressful schedule.

At a September school board meting, Avon Park Middle School teacher Sandra York said, "The stress level is unreal. I teach non-stop like everybody else does."

The tough budget climate also led to an impasse in the contract negotiations between the district and the teacher and school support unions.

At separate impasse hearings in October, the school board, sitting as a special legislative body, ruled in favor of the district's position of freezing pay raises.
After years of increasing student enrollment through the 2006-07 school year, the district's enrollment is down again this year by about 120 to 130 students compared to last year.

NINE: Real Estate sales perk up – somewhat
SEBRING After two years of being in the doldrums, real estate sales saw a ray of light this year, fueled, in part, by low home prices, low interest rates and the extended first-time home buyer tax credit program.

The tightening credit market meant that home loans got harder to come by and buyers generally had to plonk down more in downpayment, but foreclosures and short sales drove down home prices to new lows.

As of Dec. 22, the total number of homes sold this year in Highlands County was 1,109, compared to 935 in 2008, an increase of 19 percent.

The news was encouraging in the rest of the state, too. Florida Realtors reported that home sales statewide increased 61 percent in November compared to the year before. In Highlands County, Steve Fruit, RE/MAX Realty Plus II broker associate, estimated that November sales increased about 29 percent compared to 2008.

The federal government extended the homebuyer assistance program from Nov. 30 deadline to April 30.

Besides a credit of up to $8,000 for first-time buyers, Congress also expanded the program to include homeowners who have lived in their current properties for at least five years. They can now claim a tax credit of up to $6,500 if they relocate.

TEN: Sun 'n Lakes voting method changes
SEBRING In early April, the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners voted to change the voting rules for landowner elections in the Sun 'n Lake of Sebring Improvement District by reducing the voting power of large landowners.

Under the new rules, each landowner with an acre or less would receive one vote.
This reduced by three quarters the voting power of larger landowners who used to get one vote for each lot they owned. An acre is the equivalent of about four lots.

In the past, a large corporate landowner like National Recreational Properties Inc. could swing a landowner election by throwing its weight of more than 2,000 votes in the direction of a particular candidate, effectively giving landowners a three-seat majority on a five-member board of supervisors.

Two supervisor seats are decided by popular vote.

Many residents in Sun 'n Lake felt this was not equitable and fought for a third popularly elected seat.

Four of the five members of the district's board of supervisors agreed the county commission's decision was a violation of the equal protection cause of the Constitution and voted 4-1 to sue the county.

Supervisor Dave Halbig cast the dissenting vote. He stated he didn't think the board should use taxpayer dollars to change what, in his estimate, eight out of 10 residents in the district wanted, according to a previous report.

Supervisor George "Bud" Puffenberger was the most outspoken in favor of filing the lawsuit stating, "I have to challenge a political decision made for political expediency."

In order to avoid the lawsuit that was later filed by the district, the commission could vote this January on a new ordinance to change the number of popularly voted seats.

The county commission met with the board of supervisors and concerned citizens looking for a way to avoid litigation.

The residents have wanted a third popular seat for a long time, said Dick Miller, a Sun 'n Lake resident who ran for and lost a landowner seat election.

The commission is considering allowing voters one vote for each dollar of operation and maintenance (O&M) assessment paid to the district as a compromise solution.

For example, if a property owner paid $703 in O and M assessments to the district, they would get 703 votes. If they own two like properties they get 1,406 votes if their assessments had been paid.

The dollars they pay to the county in ad valorem taxes would not be counted for voting purposes, nor would assessments on property improvement bonds. Those with unpaid 2008 assessments would not get a vote in the next election either.

"It cancels out the density issue," said Board President Bob Severino in a previous interview. "So we're able to transfer that third seat to the people."

"The lawsuit will be resolved through this effort if it goes through," said Severino.
The next election for a landowner seat Severino holds will be held on Jan. 22.

Assuming the commission approves the ordinance at its Jan. 5 meeting, the election would be based on the operating and maintenance assessments paid up for 2008.

If the board of commissioners does not approve the ordinance, the election could be held in the manner decided by the commission in April, and the lawsuit would in all likelihood continue until a judge decides.

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