Lake brings back bacon

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The state Legislature passed a budget Friday that includes less than half of the $700,000 needed to upgrade Lake County's voting system.

But there's plenty of other goodies in the $48 billion spending plan to keep Lake leaders smiling.

Assuming Gov. Jeb Bush approves them all, money will go for various projects at Lake-Sumter Community College, a sewer-treatment facility for Astor, a new road in Clermont, a clinic for poor people in Leesburg and other efforts.

In addition, Bush will consider a bill proposed by state Sen. Anna Cowin that would create a new group charged with taking a comprehensive approach to cleaning up the Harris chain of lakes.

Cowin, R-Leesburg, also is fighting to continue the popular sales-tax holiday this year.

Meanwhile, the $3.2 million voting-reform package, proposed in response to November's election debacle, requires counties such as Lake that count ballots at a central location to buy new equipment so the votes can be added at each precinct.

The change is designed to reduce the number of so-called “spoiled” ballots.

In the last election, more than 3,100 ballots in Lake were tossed because voters marked more than one candidate in the presidential race. Such “overvotes” would be caught by precinct-based ballot counters before voters leave the polls.

The equipment is estimated to cost $700,000. But the state is only offering Lake about $300,000.

“It would be very helpful,” said Jerry Foster, Lake's assistant supervisor of elections. “Certainly, it would help the taxpayers of Lake County, and we are excited about that. Naturally, we would like to get as much as possible.”

Elections Supervisor Emogene Stegall has said the $700,000 would pay for about 100 ballot counters. That would be enough for one counter at each of the county's 86 precincts and 14 extras for spares or to accommodate new precincts created by growth.

Campuses can renovate

Besides addressing election reform, leaders in the Senate and House awarded nearly everything requested by Lake-Sumter Community College.

Lawmakers agreed to give about $560,000 to renovate buildings at all three campuses and $600,000 for about 100 acres near the south Lake campus.

About $626,500 would go for three other projects: a science lab on the Sumter campus, an expanded nursing lab at the south Lake campus and a renovated multipurpose building on the Leesburg campus.

“We did fine,” college President Robert Westrick said.Lawmakers also agreed to give $1 million for a $20 million wastewater treatment facility for Astor, a community in northeast Lake near the St. Johns River that wants to get off septic tanks.

The state has given money for this project in the past, and lawmakers said the latest allocation should provide enough cash to finally get the job done.

In south Lake, $1.25 million is lined up to pay for the construction of Hook Street, between Hancock Road and U.S. Highway 27.

The road would provide access for a high school slated to open on an 80-acre lot south of State Road 50 and east of Hancock Road in the fall of 2002.

The Legislature also earmarked $250,000 for the Community Medical Center on the First Baptist Church of Leesburg's campus. The center, a partnership between the church and Leesburg Regional Medical Center, serves the indigent and working poor. Health centers reach out

The clinic, which moved into its new 30,000-square-foot building last year, is one of three new health centers in Lake designed to ease the burden of uninsured people overwhelming hospital emergency rooms.

In other budget news, Cowin said she lined up $145,000 for a new advisory and study panel called the Harris Chain of Lakes Restoration Council, which would report to the St. Johns River Water Management District.

The new group of experts would take a comprehensive approach to solving a series of problems in the chain, which stretches between lakes Apopka and Griffin. They will coordinate with various agencies investigating different aspects of the environmental problems, Cowin said.

About $100,000 would go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to address the “immediate concerns” of threats to wildlife, with the rest going to clerical costs to set up the new group, Cowin said.

Backing up the new group with cash is a sign for some that lawmakers are getting serious about fixing problems.

“Without the legislative money, I don't see much future in improving the lakes,” said Joe Hill, a member of the Lake County Water Authority. “It is going to take a massive amount of money to improve these lakes.”

John Benton, a Fish and Wildlife biologist, said the work of a previous group, the Ocklawaha Chain of Lakes Restoration Committee, could provide a good blueprint for the new group.

“It is certainly a string of problems that will not go away without a coordinated and sustained effort,” Benton said.

Sales-tax holiday discussed

Cowin also is pushing for a fourth consecutive year for the sales-tax holiday.

Her version, which is backed by the Senate, would apply for nine days on purchases less than $50, including school supplies. The House bill calls for six days for items less than $100.

Not all of the requests from the Lake County delegation were funded. State. Rep. Carey Baker, R-Mount Dora, said he asked for $7.8 million to raise teachers' salaries in the county. It didn't fly because as a rule lawmakers won't give money to teachers in just one county, Baker said.

“I put it in because we were in such bad shape in Lake County,” he said. “But it didn't go anywhere.”

Monica Scott can be reached at mlscott@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5919.Kevin Connolly can be reached at 352-742-5917 or kconnolly@orlandosentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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