Monday, January 28, 2008
By Sid Riley
In the last days preceding the local elections on August 26, a series of “Meet Your Candidates” public Political Forums will be held. The first of these political rallies will be held at the Graceville Civic Center on Thursday, August 7. On Tuesday, August 12, the forum will be held at Sneads High School Auditorium, and finally Thursday, August 14 at the OLD Marianna High School Auditorium, each forum will begin at 6:30 p.m.
These political forums are being hosted by the Jackson County Times, and sponsored by:
- Jackson County Times
- Chipola College Television (CCTV Cable Channel 4)
- Jackson County Democratic Party
- Jackson County Republican Party
During the forum a three person panel will be asking the slate of candidates a series of relative questions under the direction of a program moderator. These meetings will be a great opportunity for the voters in Jackson County to meet these candidates face to face before they make their final balloting decisions on August 26. Please mark your personal calendar and plan to attend these important meetings.
By Sid Riley
Shocked customers will see over 30% increase in January bills due to action taken by Florida Public Service Commission.
As expected, the Public Service Commission “rubber stamped” the requested 43% rate increase that was submitted by Florida Public Utilities in October of 2007. This giant increase has been put into effect, occurring in the first billings sent to Jackson County customers in January.
The utility justified this rate increase on the fact that their long term contract with their energy provider, Gulf Power, has expired and they are now going to be paying significantly more for their supply.
One customer compared their total bill per kilowatt hour in January of 2007 to the charges on this month’s bill and found the difference to be a whopping 55% increase!!
This computation would include all involved fees, surcharges, and taxes as well as earlier increases granted to the utility during 2007. Most customers are finding this month’s charges to be record setting.
The net impact will be forced increases for goods and services from retail businesses, and reduced disposable incomes for residential customers.
Quen Rahal and Ricky Miller, owners of Rahal-Miller Chevrolet-Buick-Cadillac-Nissan in Marianna, today announced the purchase of Bonifay’s longtime Chevrolet franchise, Howell Chevrolet.
As the Rahal-Miller team grows and expands its operations, a re-opening of the Bonifay dealership is anticipated in the future.
“We look forward to being a part of the community and anticipate that our continued growth will be a great convenience for our longtime customers in Holmes and Washington counties,” Miller said.
“We are anxious to become a part of Holmes County and its growth, and we plan to provide our customers with the outstanding sales and service that has set us apart in our industry,” he added.
Miller said more details will be announced in the future and welcomed both new and existing customers to continue doing business at the Marianna location.
By Sid Riley
6:00 Board Tuesday Meeting
Ajax Construction and Donofro & Associates made a second presentation on planned new county administration building.
At the Tuesday evening regular session of the Jackson County Commission, after routine business had been completed, the Commissioners were given an update presentation on the proposed new County Administration Building. Plans were presented with the new structure having a fourth floor which is needed to provide adequate space for future growth of government functions.
The price tag for the planned four story county building as designed by Donofro & Associates and built by Ajax Construction, would be just over $18,000,000. With costs added for site preparation, parking paving, landscaping, and internal furnishings, the final cost would approach $20,000,000.
As discussion developed on the project parking space became the most important issue. The existing properties with the new building in place, would only provide for 145 parking spaces. Commissioners realize that a parking shortage already exists around the court house area, and building this building and adding workers to this congested area would only create a worsened situation.
As a solution to the parking problem, they are embarking on a search for other adjoining properties that could be used. Of course, the purchase of additional land will also increase the overall cost of the project.
During discussions the possible use of the empty 93,000 sq. ft. Wall Mart/ Sally Mae building was brought up. The Ajax representative stated that it would cost about $10,000,000 to bring that building up to code requirements. He stated that the building would have to be rewired and new heating-air conditioning installed. However, it is our understanding that much of this updating was done when Sally Mae purchased the building.
One Commissioner stated that he did not like the building because it did not have any windows. Later, an attendee stated that the existing administration building also did not have windows.
The matter will be brought to the agenda again after pricing for additional property has been determined.
By Sid Riley
4:00 Workshop on Tuesday
At Tuesday’s afternoon workshop meeting, the Jackson County Commission demonstrated their collective management abilities as they moved forward on two critical issues in our county.
The first and perhaps most controversial issue relates to the management of the Compass Lake Municipal Services Taxing Authority. At present the county operates under a contract agreement with the Compass Lake Property Owners Association to manage the use of the tax monies generated through the taxing authority for that development.
Tax revenues for Compass Lake are approximately $856,000 per year. From that money and various other revenue generating functions the Property Owners Association is charged with the responsibility of providing normal municipal services such as security, fire protection, roads maintenance, and other municipal services. Through the years several issues and allegations of mismanagement and misuse of funds have created much conflict and disagreement between the involved groups. At this county commission meeting, the commissioners began to address this situation.
Commissioner Branch, who is the board liaison with the Compass Lake POA began by stating that in his opinion the county must place security and fire protection for the residents of the development as a prime responsibility. Because of this he recommended the County to cancel its existing contract with the POA and begin to take over management responsibility for the development at Compass Lake in the Hills.
Branch related how the initial contract was apparently designed to enhance property sales and development of Compass Lake In The Hills. He stressed that the contract as written did not provide enough safeguards and conditions to ensure proper use of the funding and provision of the required services. He feels it would be appropriate for the County to begin to correct the situation and provide the needed monetary controls and services.
Since there are several legal issues which must be resolved before the county can take this action, Chairman Lockey instructed County Attorney Baker to do due diligence and provide the needed legal guidance to the Commission for future action by the Board.
The second issue placed before the Commission at this workshop meeting was the issue of the county embarking on a more meaningful paving program designed to convert highly traveled dirt roads across the county into paved roads.
The Commissioners agreed that approximately $3 million dollars per year could be utilized for resurfacing and new paving. Approaches were discussed for deciding paving priorities, allocating new paving projects appropriately between the five districts, and packaging the contracts for each paving cycle in order to lower overall costs.
At present, the first road on the “roads to be paved” list is Sylvania Plantation Road, followed by Butler Road. At the next regular meeting in February the Commissioners hope to take definitive action on the new paving program.
By Carly Barnes
New Program at Dozier Gives Back to Community
The Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys is a state operated, staff and hardware secure, level eight training school for males. It has been in existence for 108 years. The facility is divided into two components: Dozier High-Risk and Dozier Sexual Offender Program.
The stated goal of Dozier School is to rehabilitate its young residents in order for them to eventually return to the community as productive members of society. Each resident is offered the opportunity to receive job training in masonry, horticulture, auto mechanics, and other services. Also offered at the facility is the FETCH program, which teaches the boys how to care for and train young dogs before the animals are adopted. Additionally, Dozier is now housing a new program, Home Builders Institute, the workforce development arm of the National Association of Home Builders.
Home Builders Institute has been housed at Dozier for only three weeks, but has promising goals designed to benefit the community and the residents. This Dozier program is the first time that HBI has been housed at a high-risk facility.
The program will train 48 students annually, with 16 students in each of the three trades being taught: plumbing, carpentry, and facility maintenance. Christina Kuhn is the Project Coordinator for HBI and is looking forward to implementing the program’s goal of training the boys to be qualified for gainful employment in the construction industry. The specific HBI program to be offered at Dozier is Project CRAFT (Community, Restitution, Apprenticeship-Focused Training), which has been recognized by the U.S. Congress for its goals to empower youth through education, life-long career building skills, and employment in the nation’s home building industry.
The students must first apply to be part of the HBI program and then have to follow a process in order to be admitted. Each boy is recommended by referral, must be suitable for vocational training, and receives training for six months, usually towards the end of their time at Dozier. The students take classes in the morning or afternoon with HBI in their specific trade and then spend the rest of the day working towards their high school diploma or GED from the Washington County School Program at Dozier. Through this training, the boys learn employability and safety skills, and when they meet the curriculum for their trade, the students earn a Pre-Apprenticeship Certificate from the National Association of Home Builders.
HBI also follows up on its graduate students for six months, and helps them to find a job and enrollment in a school. HBI’s entry-level graduates earn an average $8.50 to $12.00 an hour on their first job after graduation.
Out of over 300 residential facilities in Florida, only four house Home Builders Institute programs. All of the programs in North Florida have been established for less than one year. The slogan of the Dozier HBI program is “The road to success is always under construction.” This very appropriate slogan is displayed on the back of the students’ uniform t-shirts.
Home Builders Institute has partnered with PANDAPP (Panhandle Drug & Alcohol Abuse Prevention Coalition, Inc.) to begin a community service project. The HBI students will provide all of the labor needed to construct wooden benches that will display anti-drug slogans. Dozier will host a facility-wide art contest for the boys to create the anti-drug slogans, and the winning slogans will be painted on the benches.
The bench project is still in the development stage, but the project plans are to display the benches throughout the community to spread drug and alcohol abuse awareness. HBI will also provide the labor for other upcoming PANDAAP projects. All HBI community service projects must be done inside the Dozier facility.
As Complex Superintendent Mary Zahasky said, “All of our students have victimized their own communities in some way, and they now have a chance to give back to our community through these projects.” HBI is open to suggestions regarding community service projects related to the boys’ training, where the students can provide free labor.
In order for HBI to construct the anti-drug benches and other projects, the materials needed must be donated. We can help these boys give back to the community and learn the importance of serving others by supporting their cause. If you or your business can donate lumber or other building materials, please contact Christina Kuhn at (850) 573-2224 or CKuhn@hbi.org.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
By Sid Riley
Some Direct Questions and Answers on the Property Tax Amendment
In a few days voters across Florida will step into voting booths and make a decision which will dramatically impact several aspects of living in our state. In discussions in coffee shops and on the street we hear differing opinions, pro and con, on this complex legislation that will appear on the January 29 ballot.
We know property owners across the state are suffering from property taxes which escalated dramatically during the nation wide housing boom experienced during the years of 2002-2006. County and municipal governments suddenly found themselves “flushed” with windfall revenues as the assessments soared and tax monies rolled in.
This heavy property tax burden combined with dramatic increases in insurance costs and a deluge of disastrous mortgage failures caused by variable rate loans that created monthly payments that surged upwards as the Federal Reserve forced interest rates to rise all contributed to the sudden and disastrous failure of the housing market. Governor Crist as part of his campaign for his position promised to get property tax relief legislation passed for Florida’s property owners. This amendment is the result of his effort.
Confusion around this new amendment was increased when the Legislature initially came forward with an approach which made the issue an option for taxpayers to choose or not choose, created a situation where the 3% assessment increase cap on homestead properties would be lost if the increased deduction was chosen, and had no provision for tax relief for property owners when the property was not eligible for homestead classification. A state judge ruled that the original proposal was improperly worded and could not be placed on the ballot. The legislature then revamped the initial approach to finally create the amendment now before the voters.
In a discussion with Sharon Cox, Jackson County Property Appraiser, we attempted to ask questions which would create a clearer, better defined picture of the features of the proposal so our county voters can make a better informed decision next week.
Question: If the amendment is passed will property owners still have the option to keep their existing level of exemption, or will every eligible piece of property automatically be put in the “double homestead” program?
Sharon Cox: All eligible properties will automatically be under the new system. The existing homestead exemption will be applied to the first $25,000 in assessed value as under the old system, then the second $25,000 in value up to a total assessment of $50,000 will be taxed, and then for properties with assessed values of over $50,000, the second (new) homestead exemption up to an additional $25,000 will be applied. It should be noted that in Jackson County, of the 11,000 homesteads now on our books, only 5,100 of these would have enough value to create any savings in taxes from the new rules. It should be noted the second homestead exemption does not apply to the school district portion of the property tax computation. I estimate that the average savings per household for county residents would be approximately $183.00.
Question: If a property owner qualifies for the new “second exemption” of an additional $25,000, will they lose the 3% maximum increase per year protection they now have on future assessment increases under the “Save Our Homes” law?
Sharon Cox: No, the 3% annual cap on increases in assessed value will remain in effect. The original legislation which was considered did create a loss of this cap, but the new amendment retains the protection. This new legislation also provides for the transfer of this cap to any new homestead eligible property the homeowner moves into in the future, up to a $500,000 CAP transfer. Starting from 2007, homeowners would have up to two years after selling their original home to transfer the cap to a new property.
Additionally, the new legislation provides for a 10% cap on non-homestead eligible property owners who fill out the necessary applications and meet designated qualifications. This exemption would not apply to the school district portion of the property taxes.
Question: What about the tangible taxes now assessed on business equipment.
Sharon Cox: For the first time, this new legislation would provide a $25,000 exemption for those commercial operations which are required to complete a Tangible Personal Property Tax Return.
Question: How much revenue will county and municipal governments lose if this amendment is approved?
Sharon Cox: At this time I can only make an estimate of the net impact. I only have data to assist me in making an estimate from two of the four revenue generating areas impacted by this law. From available data it appears the combined impact of the proposed amendment would be a reduction of just under $1.5 million dollars for the county government. The additional reductions at the municipal level would vary relative to the millage rate for each municipality.
(Editor’s Note: This amount of reduction in revenues would put the tax rolls at just under the 2006 revenue level.)
Some property owners argue that this new legislation does not go far enough in reducing the burden of government on property owners, and they plan to vote no in order to force our legislators to come up with more meaningful reductions. Others feel we should take what we can get, and then try to get more in the future.
Some people fear that the reduction in revenues will force governments to reduce services needed by the public. Others argue there is enough fat and waste in the budgets of all levels of government to absorb this slight reduction.
We hope this presentation helps you make your choice on Tuesday, January 29.