Jeff Allbritten, president of Edison State College, is one of The News-Press' People to Watch in 2013. / news-press.com file photo
Lee County commissioners Larry Kiker, left, and Cecil Pendergrass. / Lindsay Terry/news-press.com
In January, we committed to reviewing the work each quarter of our People to Watch for 2013.
On Sunday, March 31, we charted the progress of our top person to watch for the year, U.S. Congressman Trey Radel. Today, we spotlight the other individuals ó Lee County government leaders and Edison State College President Jeff Allbritten.
County government found itself in a precarious and uncertain position last year. County manager Karen Hawes resigned amid the scandal of the emergency medical flight program, the dismissal of its top two public safety leaders and the resignation of the county attorney. The county also was reeling from its $5 million, failed business investment that is VR Labs. The county also was facing a $30 million budget deficit during the next budget cycle with no real answers at the time on how to solve it.
Wrapped around this uncertain time was a transition in leadership ó two new county commissioners, Cecil Pendergrass and Larry Kiker, won election in November, and Doug Meurer was appointed interim county manager.
The first three months of 2013 have not been a whirlwind time of change, nor did we expect them to be.
The new commissioners have essentially kept to their campaign promises. Pendergrass wanted to eliminate or at least reduce impact fees in unincorporated Lee County and that was done last month when they were reduced 80 percent. Kiker wanted to regularly meet with government and community leaders from areas throughout the county and he is doing that.
Meurer wanted to disperse workloads, so he created three new assistant manager positions so that two other managers could focus on pressing issues ó Pete Winton with the budget and Holly Vaughn with public safety.
The main result of public safety is privatization of the medical flight program. A new contract is ready to be signed, saving taxpayers about $2 million a year and hopefully ending the saga of illegal billing practices and lack of the appropriate certifications.
Meurer also wants the entire EMS program to pay for itself and not be subsidized through the general fund. His proposals are for Medicare, Medicaid and the companies of private insurers to foot the bills. Those who canít pay would be put on some sort of payment program or their bills sent to a collection agency. In the long run, Meurer believe his approach will reduce costs and help them in balancing the budget. The plan makes some sense, but there is risk involved for those who are uninsured and canít pay. Just ask Lee Memorial Health System. They have to absorb 70 percent of their costs each year because of charity care.
The budget remains ongoing. There are five proposals that range from remaining revenue neutral, cutting programs or department budgets and continuing to take money from the reserve fund to transferring money from other high revenue sources to help eliminate the budget deficit. The one that seems to make the most sense is taking money from Conservation 20/20, which has $65.8 million in its coffers, plus $33.3 million in the reserve fund. Land purchases have slowed. They have brought in $67 million the last three years and only spent $14 million. The plan is to reduce the 20/20 tax rate by 30 cents on $1,000 of taxable value and transfer the money over to the general fund, amounting to about $15 million annually. It still leaves plenty of money available to buy land.
One of our major concerns is the slow process in finding a new county manager. Commissioners expected to see names in March. None appeared. Now, it looks like the county might be without a new manager until June or July, meaning a new budget will be determined without that person in place. Pendergrass, as chairman, and Kiker, along with the other three commissioners should have demanded much swifter action.
Meurer defended his position of creating the three new assistant county manager positions by saying he considered public safety and the budget top priorities and he wanted a more even distribution of the workload. He gave the three managers raises. He says the financial burden was not on the taxpayers because county salaries are $196,000 less than they were last year. Meurer says the new positions are on an interim basis only. Once the new leader is in place, public safety is rolling and the budget is set, they can return to their prior duties. We understand his reasoning, but we also are concerned that many other county employees also have been given additional work over the past five or six years with no raises.
Meurer was not in a position to fix problems that were inherited, like wrongly shifting money from one fund to another. It happened with the community parks funds in Lehigh Acres, when impact fee money meant for projects there was spent to build soccer fields near JetBlue Park. It happened when a judge ruled this week that the county couldnít use tourism tax dollars to pay for a lobbyist. Now, taxpayers in specific communities will pay for the lobbyists.
It also happened with spring training tickets. After The News-Press investigative report last year revealed the county was not keeping track of who was using its spring training tickets to Boston Red Sox or Minnesota Twins games or how much was being spent, the county was supposed develop a policy, calling for accurate and complete record keeping of those using the tickets and expenses. Although there is a very rough spread sheet in place, there is no policy.
These types of breakdowns need to stop. Over the next three months, the county commission must pick a strong manager, solve the budget deficit and be proactive in fixing current problems.
Allbritten might have inherited the toughest of all tasks among our people to watch.
Last year, he took over at a college which had recently been placed on probation for violating academic and operational protocol. At the top of the list was academic fraud ó allowing students to graduate without completing core classes required for their major.
Allbritten quickly went to work. He and the other college officials rewrote polices and reorganized its academic affairs. The college is on course to have its accreditation reaffirmed this summer.
The school also is in the process of upgrading its administrative team. It has hired two new vice presidents as well as a degree audit system specialist, who will make sure students complete the required core classwork.
Employees also are required to complete ethics training.
The college also has increased the number of full-time professors who teach credit hours from 44 percent to 51 percent.
During his inauguration speech Thursday, Allbritten talked about the college becoming a place of relevance. We believe he is heading in that direction.
Allbritten has clearly laid a course of positive change and is restoring the academic reputation of the school.
We congratulate him and his staff for their hard work in 2013.