Lobbyists asked to target water quality issues

OKEECHOBEE — The state’s plans for dealing with water flowing in and out of Lake Okeechobee top the list of issues county commissioners want their lobbyists to target.

At the Sept. 8 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, the commissioners approved the contract with CAS Governmental Services, LLC, Legislative Services, for one year; term to expire Sept. 30, 2017. The total price of the contract is $28,000 per year and will be paid in quarterly installments of $7,000 each.

The CAS team working with Okeechobee County will include Dale Milita, president; James Spratt, vice president/legislative director, Connie Vanassche, vice president, and Alexis Aupperlee, grants assistance.

Topping the list of items the county commissioners asked the lobbyists to work on in Tallahassee is the use of Amendment 1 funds to address the issues with nutrient loads and the amount of water going into and out of Lake Okeechobee.

“One of the things I would suggest, is to put in the goals and objectives of what we expect relative to various things in the course of that year,” said Terry Burroughs.

He asked the lobbyists to stay on top of funding to address the septic tank issues.

“Our friends on either side of the coast seem to point the finger at us,” said Commissioner Burroughs.

“We should be able to get our share of the Amendment 1 money.”

“It’s not going to be one coast or the other coast getting all the money,” said Mr. Spratt. They are going to look north of the lake as well as the coastal communities.

“That is squarely on the radar,” he said.

Some of the discussion in the land acquisitions, recognition to this point has been made that if land is taken off the tax rolls, the county should be compensated for the lost taxes, he continued.

“You can’t just come in and buy land, and not account for the tax revenue lost,” he said.

“I hope they will use the land they currently own, rather than go out and buy more land,” said Commissioner Burroughs.

“The solution from the coast is buy more land,” said Chairman Frank Irby.

“The taxpayer doesn’t understand why the government is buying up land at two or three times the appraised value,” said Commissioner Bryant Culpepper.

He said the coastal communities created a lot of the problem by allowing so many homes to be built without a municipal sewer system.

“This is what has created this monster for everybody,” he said.

“There is a finite amount of money, even with Amendment 1,” said Mr. Spratt.

“At the end of the day, the common theme is that we have to do things that will give us the most bang for our buck, the most impact, because we do not have a limitless checkbook to do things,” he said.

Commissioner Culpepper said he hopes the state will look for a solution, “not to just move the problem into somebody else’s back yard.”

Chairman Irby said any septic tank cost share plan should include some help for the utility authority. He said a 50/50 grant to a homeowner will do them no good when there is not already a wastewater treatment line in front of their house.

“When the water management district came out with their plan, it was homeowner focused,” said Mr. Spratt.

“If they don’t have a wastewater system, there is no pipe to hook up to,” he agreed.

Chairman Irby also asked about the 2.6 mile bridge proposed to allow water to flow to the Everglades.

“That is a problem, there is not enough raised structure that will allow water to flow to the Everglades,” he said.

“I think it is valuable for people to keep talking about. No matter what you do south of the lake, you can’t move the water unless you do that.”

Another issue the commissioners brought up is the county’s request for a traffic light on U.S. 441 North at Cemetery Road.

“On Cemetery Road and U.S. 441 N., FDOT is going to study this one more time,” said Commissioner Burroughs.

He said there are a lot of accidents at that intersection.

“We put a red light at U.S. 98 and 36th in the area of a school,” said Mr. Burroughs. “I don’t see any difference between U.S. 441 and Cemetery Road and U.S. 98 and 36th.”

“When FDOT looks at accidents, they only look at reports from Florida Highway Patrol. They don’t look at all of the accidents the sheriff’s department handles,” said Commissioner Culpepper.

“Look at Ninth Street and U.S. 441 N.,” said Commissioner Burroughs. “We have trucks pulling out there constantly.”

The truck drivers don’t wait for the traffic because they know the traffic will have to stop for them, he said.

Administrator Robbie Chartier said FDOT is focused on how fast traffic moves and because of that, they don’t want to put in traffic signals. But the movement of traffic must also be balanced with safety, she said.

“A critical thing would be to improve the city’s utilization of their industrial park,” said Chairman Irby.

Mr. Spratt said he can make sure FDOT has the accident records from the sheriff’s office, and argue for additional traffic signals.

In other business, the county commission approved renewal of the contract with Cassels & McCall for legal services. The annual expense is $121,682 per year. This contract is the same as the amount in the current budget. The rate was the same for the 2013/2014. 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 fiscal years.

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