Polk County, Cities Look to New Year with Eye Toward Progress
In a year consumed by a pandemic, unrest, the presidential election and myriad other things that easily could have distracted the best of us, our county and city managers kept their collective eyes trained on the future, making progress when they could have been forgiven for just keeping the boat steady.
Now, they are looking ahead. Several shared their top priorities, how they cut their budgets and the effects those cuts may have, what they are doing to help businesses and individuals suffering from COVID-19 and more.
As 2021 begins, the Board of County Commissioners will continue their focus on a number of items, said County Manager Bill Beasley. Those are:
- Public safety: New facilities will continue to be a priority. “There is no higher priority than the safety and well-being of our residents,” he said.
- Transportation and transit: The county has five major road-widening projects that are moving through the design/permitting phase at a fully-funded total of $250 million; two will begin in late 2021. And the Lakeland Area Mass Transit District Board continues to review additional transit routes.
- Indigent health care/behavioral health services: With a growing population of individuals having no means to address basic health care services, and more residents being diagnosed with behavioral health issues, demand for these services is expected to grow substantially.
- Affordable/workforce housing: The “American Dream” continues to be a challenge as housing costs increase, prompting creative public/private partnership solutions.
- Basic local government services: Telecommuting will grow in popularity but may be a challenge for local governments to implement fully. Social distancing will be the new norm. The county’s challenge will be to continue serving our citizens in a manner that meets or exceeds their expectations with constrained resources.
Polk County’s FY 2020/21 budget reflects lower revenues. “Given that our budget typically includes myriad ‘carry forward’ funds for extended capital projects, and that we budget to receive only 95% of projected revenues, we do not project a reduced level of service within any category of our core business units. Revenue sources are monitored monthly for variations from our projections,” Beasley said.
Like many of us, Beasley would like to return to pre-COVID-19 days. “I would wish for 2021 to look and feel like 2019, a very prosperous year for many in Polk County. Knowing that we can learn from our past, the reality is that 2021 will probably start much like 2020 ended. COVID-19 will still be a clear and present danger, and much is uncertain about how the public will react to receiving the new vaccine. The fact that a vaccine is available should prove very reassuring to residents and businesses in 2021.”
His wish is built on a strong foundation. “The collective communities within Polk County are in very capable hands, both at the local and state government levels. Private business leadership and local governance remain committed to more prosperous times ahead.”
In 2021, Auburndale will relocate its Community Development Construction Services Division from downstairs in the historic City Hall building to new facilities at 108 E. Park St., right next door, said City Manager Bobby Green. The department handles building permitting and inspection activities.
The city is also spending about $200,000 to upgrade its software so customers can submit applications and pay for plans online, request inspection and see inspection results, Green said. GIS Mapping can be used to view all permit activity in the city. “The city is very excited to implement this new program and to provide better service delivery from the new office space.”
Improving the infrastructure in Fort Meade is the No. 1 priority, said City Manager Danielle Judd. That may be more difficult as cities and counties suffered losses caused by the pandemic.
“This already impacted us Oct. 1, 2020. We took a big hit on state shared and intergovernmental revenues,” Judd said. “We had to defer certain capital improvements and look to outside funding sources. This is an austere year for us.”
The city will continue to tap into regional, state and federal sources for pandemic relief, as well as be a conduit for others looking for assistance. It will help residents as needed, such as through deferred utility billing.
In the coming year, Judd said she’d like to meet community expectations and encourage unity. “There is more that unites us than divides us. It’s not my slogan but one I try to live my life by. I am a glass-half-full person.”
City Manager James Slaton said Lake Wales’ top priority is to redevelop Park Avenue in the city’s historic downtown. “Park Avenue represents the first major phase of implementation of the Lake Wales Connected urban design plan, a multi-year strategy to revitalize Lake Wales. The project focuses on converting an existing over-sized one-way lane to two right-sized lanes. Existing diagonal spaces will become parallel spaces in order to make room for a wider, curbless sidewalk with street trees.”
The city will address any needs from the pandemic as they arise, but for now, it plans to connect businesses and individuals with county and state agencies offering assistance. It is also working with “utility customers who may be experiencing hardships by providing longer utility repayment plans.”
Because it put together a conservative budget for the fiscal year that runs from October 2020 through September 2021, projecting revenue shortfalls that were greater than what the city has experienced so far, “my expectation is that we will have a cash surplus at the end of the fiscal year that will help mitigate any future revenue shortfalls.”
The city reduced departmental operating costs and deferred capital expenditures where possible and is looking for grants to help with future capital projects. “The deferral of some capital projects will have the most significant impact on our community. For example, the city had to make significant cuts to our street resurfacing program in FY 2021, resulting in the full implementation of the plan being delayed a year.”
In a perfect world, the city would have expanded the street resurfacing program and allocated money to improve facilities.
Because it has a healthy reserve fund, it likely will be able to maintain current levels of service.
In 2021, City Manager Mike Herr said Winter Haven plans to develop “a new City Hall Plaza, which includes a new City Hall, urban design and arts studio, creating opportunities for residential living and entrepreneurial businesses.”
The city has tried to help residents during the pandemic by handing out about 25,000 free face masks and directing them to CARES funding for utilities and rent/mortgage assistance, Herr said. In addition, existing businesses can tap into new business incentives in the Downtown and Florence Villa CRAs (Community Redevelopment Agency).
“For employees, we instituted a remote work-from-home workplace policy to ensure their safety so valuable work could get done to complete our city mission to provide exceptional customer service.”
The strategy for the 2021 budget will continue “to focus on investing in projects that bring ‘community value’ like repurposing our Winter Haven Recreation Culture Center or constructing the Lake Elbert Trail,” Herr said. These projects will be huge for raising the bar in our city.”
One gift he would have liked for Christmas would have been “$45 million to pursue One Water, which would be great to jump-start our investment in land acquisition so that nature parks and walking trails can be a reality around our Chain of Lakes.”
He also wants “our Citizens to protect themselves from the spread of Covid-19, continue to wear masks and get a vaccine.”
And one more thing: For everyone to “Invest in Winter Haven.”
Municipal leadership throughout Polk County continue to work tirelessly for citizens, families and businesses. Collaboration, planning and strategizing will ensure Polk remains Florida’s Best Place for Business.