By Marc Crail District 4 Representative and Vice-Mayor
Here's the scoop from City Council's August 2nd. meeting. I've selected four important items from the agenda to tell you about today. This report comes from me and not on behalf of City Council as a whole.
We approved an agreement with Round Lake Charter School to provide for a school resource officer there for the upcoming 2022-23 school year. Round Lake Charter will reimburse the City $69,781 to defray the cost. We also provide resource officers at Triangle Elementary, Mount Dora Middle School and Mount Dora High School. I sleep better knowing that our school students are under the protection of well trained police officers. Our school children are among Mount Dora's youngest citizens and they deserve the best safety that we can provide for them.
Plans are moving ahead for a Community Resource and Recreation Center. There will be multiple partners involved in the operation and programming of this resource center. We selected Borrelli & Partners firm to do the design and engineering for this center. Of course rising construction costs are of concern and we discussed that but your City Council voted unanimously to approve $385,624 for phase 1 design and engineering costs and $638,954 for phase 2 design and engineering. Please note that these design costs will come out of the Northeast Community Redevelopment Agency's budget and not the City's general funds.
Over the past few months I've reported that the Lake County Water Authority Board has approved having their 153 acre Wolf Branch Sink Preserve annexed into the City. Now Mount Dora City Council has approved the first reading of of an ordinance that will change the zoning of that ecologically fragile property from "Light Manufacturing" and "Residential" to "Greenbelt" which is will, when finalized, provide the highest level of protection from future development for Wolf Branch Sink and the surrounding acreage owned by the Water Authority.
We also approved the first reading of an ordinance voluntarily annexing 36.61 acres for a future development called Mt. Dora Hills to be located on the south side of SR 46 and east of Buttercup Lane adjacent to the railroad tracks . This property is in the Wolf Branch Innovation District area. We heard from the developer at a June meeting regarding his exciting plans for this parcel.
FYI, we heard from staff from Mount Dora's electric utility department that the price of natural gas that is used to generate electricity is getting much more expensive and is expected to stay high through 2023. Mount Dora Electric must raise its fuel cost rate to cover those exponentially higher costs. SECO, Duke Energy and other electric suppliers have or very soon will raise their fuel cost charges as well. Get ready for higher electric bills no matter who supplies your home or business.
Our quote for today was adapted from a quote by Damian Barr. "We are not all in the same boat. We are in the same storm. Some of us have yachts, some have canoes, and some are drowning. Just be kind and help whoever you can."
Thanks for your continuing interest in our wonderful City.
By Marc Crail District 4 Representative and Vice-Mayor
Tropical storms and hurricanes can wreak havoc on Florida cities. Roads, utilities, emergency services and infrastructure can be strained or interrupted during and after these tropical storms. Hurricane season doesn’t seem to be an optimal time for a city to forgo permanent department leadership in critical departments like Public Works and Fire Rescue, and Police, but that’s the position the City of Mount Dora currently faces.
Mount Dora is also in the middle of planning its budget and determining its tax rate, yet it hasn’t had a permanent finance director since February.
The longest permanent management vacancy is the city’s Fire Chief, which has been vacant for over a year. Since then Deputy Chief Rich Loewer has been serving as the prolonged and capable Interim Chief. Loewer, who has served with the department for almost two decades and is an integral part of the City’s emergency management and ISO and accreditation processes, has yet to have the permanent position extended to him by the City Manager.
Interim Police Chief Mike Gibson, a former MDPD captain and respected 27-year veteran of Orange County Sheriff’s Office, has been in his current interim position as Interim Police Chief for the shortest period of time due to the resignation of Chief Brett Meade last June.
City Managers can opt to hire the qualified interim department heads or conduct an outside search for their replacements. According to the City, no searches to fill the crucial positions are underway, so it's unclear why the interim managers haven't been offered the permanent positions. City Manager Patrick Comiskey did not respond to Mount Dora Buzz's questions about the reason for the lack of searches or whether the interim management personnel were likely to become permanent. Comiskey also didn't respond to whether the interim directors were being compensated appropriately for their added responsibilities.
The potential short-term benefit of not making interim directors permanent or searching for replacements is saving money, while the potential longer-term outcomes are low morale, job uncertainty and the risk of qualified interim directors and their staff seeking employment elsewhere for professional recognition and salaries commensurate with their responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the budget for the city’s 2022-2023 fiscal year is being prepared by Interim Finance Director Rita Meade. The City's budget and tax rate will be adopted in September.
In light of local incidents that occurred late during the last school year and tragic incidents that happened nationally, Mount Dora Buzz compiled information that may help parents separate fact from fiction about local public school safety. Althoug Mount Dora’s schools are relatively safe compared to others, here are eight things to know as classes resume on August 10.
1. Mount Dora Police has a master key for all Mount Dora public schools to gain access in an emergency, according to M.D.P.D.
2. If a parent is worried about a specific threat to their student or others, they should email the school’s principal, vice principal, school superintendent and school resource officer to create a traceable public record about the specific threat. The same should be done with follow up communications, as public records are required to be preserved by Florida statute and create a trail of the communication. Parents can always call or visit the school, in addition to email.
3. Any time the school learns of a threat or a perceived threat, a Behavior Threat Assessment (B.T.A.) is conducted to determine the threat level and what their response should be.
4. Policies on bullying, as well as grounds for suspension or expulsion, can be found in the District’s Code of Student Conduct."Bullying" is defined in the Code on page 48 as an incident where there is enough substantial evidence that proves the accused willfully and repeatedly exercised power or control over another by systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress. More details about Lake County Schools (LCS) anti-bullying policies can be found at School Board Policy 5517.01.
5. To help reduce the number of fights, LCS expects adult supervision of students at all times, particularly between class periods, and it doesn't allow students to stand idle when they should be in class or headed that way.
6. The State of Florida requires Lake County Public Schools to submit School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting (SESIR) data, including fights and weapons. Physical incidents at the schools fall into different classifications.
“Fighting”is defined in the Code (page 48) as a situation when two or more persons mutually participate in the use of force or physical violence that requires either physical intervention or results in injury requiring first-aid or medical attention.
"Physical altercations" are defined in the Code (page 47) as physical conflicts between two or more persons that do not require physical restraint or cause injury and are stopped upon verbal command. These are not considered fights by the Code.
7. LCS does require its trained safety officers to intervene in fights with minimal force. Most LCS employees are not required to intervene in a fight, but they are allowed to do so. See School Board Policy 5630.
8. In the case of an emergency at a school, parents should refer to LCS Facebook page and local media for information and updates.
Below is a chart of data provided to Mount Dora Buzz from Lake County Schools comparing incidents at Mount Dora Middle School, other LCS middle schools and Mount Dora High School during the 2021-2022 school year.
ABOVE: 2021-2022 LCS middle school incidents, and Mount Dora High incidents
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor & District 4 Representative
On Monday, July 22 City Council held a 10:00 a.m. Budget Workshop meeting. What follows comes only from me and isn't from City Council as a whole. Coming up with a budget for a public entity is always a drawn out process. We are continuing to work toward formulating our budget for fiscal year 2022-23 that begins on October 1. Nothing is for certain at this point but there are some "Key Drivers" to be aware of. We are in a time of unusually high inflation so it seems very likely that we will see an approximate 10% increase in our Property and Casualty Insurance rates, a 15% uptick in Workers Compensation costs not to mention needed pay raises. Inflation CPI last month was 9.1% which as we all know, is budget wrecking territory. None of this makes our job any easier.
You should receive by mail your proposed property taxes from the Lake County Property Appraiser a "TRIM Notice" in late August. That TRIM Notice will show the highest possible millage rates from each Lake County taxing agency. In the case of the City of Mount Dora, they will be on the high side and should be reduced in the end.
I'm expecting that all of us will see increases on our FY22-23 real estate tax bills averaging in the neighborhood of $7.29 per month or about $87.48 for the year. Please don't think that those numbers are for sure. They are definitely not. They are only my "guesstimates" for an "average" house. As we get closer to final adoption of our new budget the numbers will become more accurate.
Today we reviewed only the operating general fund budget, not our wages/ health insurance costs which are a large part of the tax equation. Those numbers will be forthcoming.
We still don't have several important numbers necessary for completing our budget building task. This is par for the course for this point in time but concerning too because of the inflationary climate we find ourselves in this year. This is one of City Council's most important tasks and from what I've seen, everyone involved is interested in doing the job as well as possible.
Upcoming budget related meetings include August 29th, at 10:00 a.m., September 6th at 6:00 p.m., for setting the Fire Assessment Fee and also adoption of our tentative millage and budget and September 20 at 6:00 p.m. for final millage and budget approval.
I got some flack when I forgot to include a quote in my most recent report. I won't make that mistake today! Our quote comes from Kathleen Casey Theisen. "Acceptance is not submission; it is acknowledgement of the facts of a situation. Then deciding what you're going to do about it."
When it comes to local government, there are lots of armchair quarterbacks and second-guessers. In the end, there are only seven elected representatives in Mount Dora serving their community--one mayor and six council members--that have the final say on decisions. City residents can opt to have greater impact because three of those seats will have open elections this year and the qualifying period is just around the corner. In recent elections, many Mount Dora City Council candidates ran without opposition, so there’s no time like the present to throw your hat in the ring. Here’s some timely information for Mount Dora residents interested in serving in their community: 1. What are the requirements to run for City Council? A candidate must be an eligible voter in Mount Dora for no less than 12 consecutive months prior to filing for candidacy. Paperwork must be filed by the end of the qualifying period which is August 12 at noon.
2. What education and experience is required to run for City Council? There is no particular experience or education required. 3. What and when is the qualifying period? The qualifying period is the timeframe to turn in the paperwork, also referred to as “the packet.” The qualifying period for the November 8, 2022 city election begins at noon on August 8 and ends on August 12 at noon. In other words, all of the paperwork must be completed and turned into the City Clerk at City Hall by that date and time. View and download the packet with complete instructions and forms here.
4. What are the three city council seats up for election? Council seats for District 2(includes Country Club of Mount Dora), and District 3 (including Lake Gertrude and Eudora Road areas), plus an at-large council seat (includes entire city). View district map below (click to enlarge) or download PDF.
5. What is the difference between ”district” council members and “at-large” council members? District candidates are elected by voters residing in that defined district (see district map). At-large council members are elected by all the voters throughout the City. Additionally, the at-large city council seat and the mayoral seat allow candidates to live anywhere within the City limits. District council members are required to live in their specific district. (See district below) Mount Dora City Council has five district council members and one at-large, plus the Mayor which is an at-large seat.
6. How long are the terms? All city council terms are four years. 7. How much money do candidates typically raise for a campaign? Historically, that can vary greatly depending on the district, the number of candidates vying for the same seat and the effectiveness of a candidate's campaign strategy. The ballpark range for the specific district seats this year may be $2,000 to $5,000. The mayor seat and at-large council seat require additional money to reach more voters in a larger geographic area, so the ballpark amount is likely $8,000 for a two-person race. 8. How much are the council members and mayor compensated? Approximately $6,000 and $10,000 respectively. 9. Where do I turn in my completed paperwork packet? City Clerk’s office located on the second floor of CIty Hall at 510 N. Baker Street.
10. There is no time like the present to get involved. You can download the candidate packet below.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 representative Here are several items from the June 21 Mount Dora City Council Meeting that you might be interested in hearing about. You probably are already aware that what follows comes from me and not on behalf of City Council as a whole.
We heard an interesting presentation on a new business called Olde Mount Dora Carriage Company. Two Mount Dora residents are planning to offer electric carriage tours and carriage ride dinners throughout downtown. Their vehicles have all the charm of a traditional carriage but without the horse. Instead they are electric powered. They plan to begin testing their concept in the next few months. It sounds like fun to me.
If you are looking for a convenient place to park for FREE just a few blocks from downtown, use the parking lot across the street from the First United Methodist Church on 5th Ave. We renewed our 10 year lease with the church. Feel free to park there anytime except for major festival weekends.
We took the first step in the process of setting the Fire Services Special Assessment for the upcoming budget year. We will discuss the proposed amount of that fee which is currently pegged at $209 for homes. This fee can only be used to pay for fire related capital items such as fire trucks and our new fire stations.
The cost of everything seems to be going up these days. We authorized the purchase of up to 600 new water meters before a July 1 price increase. They are getting hard to find with a lead time of 4-20 weeks. If we decide to buy all 600, we will save about $45,000.
We approved the final reading to annex 154 acres of property owned by the Lake County Water Authority into the City. We want to help ensure that this ecologically fragile land is protected from future development.
If you didn't have a chance to experience the Juneteenth Celebration on Saturday you missed out. Fun, food and fellowship were all there in abundance. It was a hot day and wet for a few minutes but plan on attending next year.
While this next item wasn't a part of the City Council meeting, it was included in the City Manager's Report. Close to 300 Lakes of Mount Dora residents met Tuesday 6/21 to hear an update on the proposed traffic light at the intersection of Lakes of Mount Dora Blvd. and SR 44. The project has been approved and design work is now underway. FDOT is streamlining what is normally a 3 year long process into 6-8 months because of significant safety concerns. Design should be completed by early fall and they hope that the traffic signal will be installed shortly after the new signal going in at 44 and Britt Rd. With supply concerns, FDOT is doing "early ordering" of items with long lead times. Our meeting was encouraging to say the least!
Our quote of the day comes by way of Father Nathan Monk of Welsh Church. "At the end of the day, I'd rather be excluded for those I include, than be included for those I exclude!"
Thanks to the opportunity you have provide me to serve as your District 4 Council Rep. and Vice-Mayor.
By Marc Crail Mount Dora Vice Mayor and District 4 representative
By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor I've selected some action items from the meeting agenda to tell you about and I'll also talk about several discussion items and presentations that were also significant. Let's begin with the action items. Please keep in mind that I'm reporting as an individual, not on behalf of City Council in any official capacity.
The Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization is responsible for creating a list of urgently needed road related projects each year. The MPO is made up of representatives from the cities and county governments. We approved our support of their 2022 List of Priority Projects last night. Two of the top seven will be very impactful to Mount Dora residents. This list will be sent along to the State for consideration. Priority Project #3 is the road widening of SR 44 B between 441 (Publix store) and the Circle K gas station on the corner of SR 44 and 44 B. This project is projected to cost about $24 M.
The second project has a price tag of more than $22 M. It is widening US Rt 441 between the Publix plaza (Donnelly St.) to just north of SR 46 where the new flyover is located.
Please keep in mind that various funding sources come into play and even these top priorities may not be funded for a few years.
By a 5-2 vote (Rolfson & Gunther voted no) Council approved the final reading of an Ordinance pertaining to placing the contentious downtown building heights Charter Amendment on the November ballot. I voted to put it on the ballot although I adamantly believe that this isn't something that should be in the City's Charter. Please educate yourself on the cons and pros of this ballot issue.
We approved a preliminary plat for a 125 unit townhome development called Villages of Loch Leven. These will be homes, not apartments to be located off SR 44 and Meadenhall Blvd.
We approved the first reading of a request from the Lake County Water Authority to have their 153.79 acre preserve called Wolf Branch Sink located off of Robie Ave. annexed into Mount Dora. This property will be protected from future development by a conservation easement and unified under one title if it is finally approved at our next meeting.
In addition to the agenda items above, we heard two proclamations involving Juneteenth holiday marking the end of slavery and LGBTQIA+ Pride Month. I'm proud that Mount Dora is in the forefront of celebrating and including all of our citizens.
Several residents spoke about the positive contributions of Police Chief Brett Meade who resigned last week. He hasn't yet publicly spoken about his reason(s) for resigning.
Former Mount Dora Mayor, Nick Girone and County Commissioner, Leslie Campione have teamed up to try to convince FDOT to reduce the speed limit on SR 44 between Rt 439 and the Circle K station at the intersection of 44 and 44 B from the current 55 mph to 45 mph until the proposed traffic lights at Britt Rd. and Lakes of Mount Dora Blvd. are completed. City Council agreed to write a letter of support for that speed limit reduction.
Speaking of traffic lights, Lakes of Mount Dora residents are encouraged to attend a meeting with FDOT officials on Tuesday June 21 at 3:00 p.m. in the LoMD social hall. We held a similar meeting with FDOT about three months ago. There have been some recent developments that will be announced. Please plan to attend!
My quote for today comes from "Skopelosnews". I think it sounds as if it could have been written about those of us who live, work and play in Mount Dora. We are very fortunate indeed.
"We live in paradise and we fight over unimportant matters. We live in paradise and we are impatient. We live in paradise and are in a hurry. We live in paradise and we don't realize it half the time. This is paradise!
By Marc Crail Mount Dora District 4 Representative & Vice-Mayor
On June 1, Mount Dora Police Chief Brett Meade abruptly quit, leaving residents and city leaders stunned and saddened. Last month, the City’s police department received media scrutiny due to a use-of-force incident that occurred in September 2021 and was captured on an officer’s body camera footage. The incident received no internal investigation last year and the Department took no disciplinary actions, according to the City.
Due to a Channel 9 television reporter’s request for the body camera footage on May 9, the City Manager, Mayor and council members became aware of the seven-month-old incident. According to documents, City Manager Patrick Comiskey, who was hired in October 2021 as the City’s top administrator who supervises the Chief of Police and other City departments, wanted an independent third-party investigation. Independent reviews can be done when there is conflict of interest if the investigation is done internally, according the Florida statute. In this case, a perceived conflict of interest could derive from the lack of an internal investigation over the six months preceding the media exposing the incident. City documents show Meade repeatedly sought for the belated investigation to be handled internally.
Here is a brief timeline of events that preceded Meade's resignation on June 1. The timeline is taken from public records.
SEPTEMBER 21, 2021: Mount Dora Police body camera captured a use-of-force incident that appears to show an officer forcefully ram a non-violent man’s head into a police car. The incident happened in the Dollar Store parking lot on U.S. 441.
MAY 9, 2022: A reporter from Channel 9 News made a public record request for the body camera footage of the incident. That request is how the Mount Dora City Manager, Mayor and City Council became aware of the incident that occurred over six months prior. (see body cam video and news story here) MAY 9, 2022, evening: According to an email, Comiskey spoke with Deputy Chief Mike Gibson to advise that an outside agency should review the use-of-force incident, as well as perform any resulting internal investigations their review might deem necessary.
MAY 11, 9:53 a.m.: Comiskey, who was hired by Mount Dora's previous Mayor and City Council, instructed Meade to seek an outside review of the case from State law enforcement and expressed it was imperative this case be reviewed by an outside agency. The email also directed Meade to set up a training class on the use of force and de-escalation and have each officer participate in it over the next 90 days, as well as set up a multi-day use-of-force and de-escalation training program for each officer to go through on an annual basis beginning next fiscal year. Gibson had advised Comiskey that other law enforcement agencies do this, according to the email. Comiskey also sought cost estimates from Meade for that training and the cost for officers to undertake the annual State-required training for annual certification.
MAY 11, 9:38pm: Mount Dora City Attorney Sherry Sutphen advised Comiskey that she reviewed new 2020 legislation regarding Florida Statutes, Section 112.533(1)(b) and provided her legal interpretation.
MAY 12: An internal investigation was opened and pending a request for an independent external review.
In a memo, Sutphen advised Comiskey that he had the legal authority to authorize the outside investigation pursuant to City of Mount Dora City Charter, Article V, Section 19. which states "the City Manager is the Chief Administrative Officer of the City of Mount Dora and shall be responsible to the City Council for the administration of all City affairs placed in his charge."
Sutphen wrote, "The City of Mount Dora Police Department is a department within the City which has been placed under the charge of the City Manager. The position of Police Chief is not a separate Charter office within the City. As such, the City Manager is considered the head of the agency for purposes of Florida Statutes, Section 112.533, as well as for any and all other matters related to the Police Department."
MAY 16 morning: Sutphen spoke to the City of Kissimmee City Attorney and later reported to Comiskey via email that they were interested in entering into an agreement with the City of Mount Dora to conduct reciprocal internal investigations under Florida statute in the event of conflict of interest. She advised the City Manager that he had signature authority under Resolution 2017-150.
MAY 18: In a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Comiskey sought their assistance to determine if the use-of-force incident should involve an internal affairs investigation on the officer; and if so, requested their investigator perform the investigation and provide the City with findings. “It is my opinion the content of the video should be reviewed from an outside party trained in police investigations and level of conduct. I also want the investigator to review the action or inaction of Corporal (name withheld by Mount Dora Buzz), who was also on the scene; and if he/she deem warranted, perform an internal investigation on him. It may appear the city has a conflict in reviewing the case since it was aired on the regional news and warrants the review of an outside agency,” Comiskey also stated in the letter.
MAY 19, 5:39 p.m.: Comiskey advised Meade that he was working on securing an outside agency to perform a review of the September 21 event which was aired on Channel 9 in May.
MAY 19, 6:06 p.m.: In an email to Comiskey, Meade re-stated his opinion that an external administrative investigation was not a legal option and asked for a meeting with Comiskey and whomever was advising him.
The City Manager, Mayor, City Council members, and members of City staff rely on the City Attorney Sutphen for legal opinions who is the person hired to provide them.
MAY 25, 6:22 p.m. Sutphen advised Comiskey that the City of Kissimmee Police Chief had no concerns with the concept of an agreement to conduct an independent investigation in conflict situations.
MAY 26, 3:11 p.m.: In an email, Comiskey reiterated to Meade that the City Manager was working on securing an outside agency to review the use of force in two cases.
MAY 27: In a memo to Comiskey, Meade provided his interpretation of the Florida statute relevant to the matter. Meade stated that the investigation would be conducted internally, rather than the independent investigation sought by Comiskey.
MAY 31, 8:45 a.m.: Via email, Meade sent his position statement and opinion regarding the investigation to Comiskey. Meade interpreted the Florida statute and a 1997 Attorney General Opinion (AGO) to mean that the investigation must be done internally under him. Meade stated he was proceeding with the internal probe and would inform the City Manager of its findings.
The AGO supplied was written prior to a 2020 change in the statute and Mount Dora City Attorney’s legal opinion differed from Meade’s. Comiskey, the Chief's superior, relies on the legal opinions and interpretations of the City Attorney, who is hired to provide them.
MAY 31, 7:45 p.m.: In a response email, Comiskey stated. "I appreciate the attached information you provided. If you have any additional support documentation for your position, please bring it by and I will review it. However, under no circumstances are you to begin an IA investigation regarding Officers (names withheld by Mount Dora Buzz). I am working on securing an outside investigator to review the events of the night in question and to determine if an IA is needed; and if so, to conduct it. The outside agency will also review the results of the other IA’s your staff is currently conducting. As I have advised you, this is being done for the good of the agency, yourself, and the officers in question." Comiskey also informs Meade that if he disregards that directive, he will be subject to termination.
JUNE 1, morning: Four individuals (two residents and two City employees) informed Comiskey that Meade was discussing internal personnel matters of Mount Dora Police Department and City government with residents and business operators, according to the City's Public Information Officer.
JUNE 1, 11:10 a.m.: Comiskey emailed Meade to cease and desist the behavior or face disciplinary action, including possible termination.
Mount Dora Buzz asked the City to provide the specific policy that Meade’s behavior violated, but that information was never provided.
JUNE 1, 11:31 a.m.: In an email, Meade responded that he was writing his letter of resignation and would have it to Comiskey by that afternoon, which he did.
JUNE 2: In an email to Sutphen and members of City staff, Comiskey advised of the acceptance of Meade’s resignation and expressed appreciation for his service. He also stated, “We are in the process of trying to secure an outside agency to review the events from the Dollar Store parking lot of last September and advise what, if any, actions should occur and if any internal affairs investigations are recommended. We are also asking the same agency to review the results of a case currently in process and advise if they concur with the findings and the way in which it was conducted. Said reviews and possible investigations may present information, findings, or recommendations that make us uncomfortable; however, we have to do what is best for the community, as well as fair to city workers.”
JUNE 3: A reciprocal internal investigation agreement was formed between the City of Mount Dora and the City of Kissimmee.
Mount Dora Buzz requested additional public records, but they were not provided. Mount Dora Buzz opted to withhold the names of the Mount Dora Police Officer and Corporal from the September 21, 2022 incident pending the outcome of the outside investigation. However, that information is public record.
It was a big and controversial undertaking. Less than a decade ago, Mount Dora taxpayers invested in their downtown sidewalks to make the area more pedestrian-friendly while upgrading its underground infrastructure. The 2014 phase of the massive project widened the downtown sidewalks along Donnelly Street by removing angled or “head-in” parking spaces and replacing them with fewer parallel spaces, as well as removing the brick flower planters, considered by City staff to be hazardous obstacles for pedestrians at the time.
Fast forward to today -- downtown Mount Dora’s sidewalks are anything but pedestrian-friendly due to lax code enforcement and inadequate ordinances. The City’s code prohibits obstructing public sidewalks, yet not long after the widening project was completed, the proliferation of retailers’ sales tables, clothing racks and merchandise carts conspicuously obstructing the public sidewalks began.
This daily practice, along with the growing number of t-shirts and dish towels hanging outside shops, has transformed some previously charming blocks of downtown into a sprawling sidewalk sale subsidized by the City's taxpayers.
One stretch of sidewalk on Donnelly between Fourth Avenue and Third Avenue is frequently littered with large retail tables, garden stakes, and other items for sale forcing pedestrians to walk single-file on a sidewalk intended for at least two pedestrians to be able to walk abreast. Additionally, large cement blocks a retailer uses to hold merchandise by day are left out overnight, creating potential tripping hazards that have existed for several months.
Code enforcement has also been lax in handling the groupings of bulky sandwich boards crowding the sidewalks in front of buildings that have multiple tenants. The City’s code allows for those buildings to have only one sandwich board that lists all of its tenants, but due to lack of enforcement for years, groups of pedestrians are impeded until others walk past.
Ironically, the 2014 streetscape project also installed new downtown wayfinding signs on street corners that were intended to help visitors locate downtown businesses and allow for the sandwich boards to be phased out. The City never followed through with phasing out the duplicate signage, but rather increased the number of sandwich boards and wayfinding signs allowed on the poles. These actions, combined with other signage codes that aren't enforced, resulted in the current proliferation of advertising signage downtown as well as the crowded sidewalks. Interestingly, it was only about a decade ago when sandwich boards weren't permitted at all in downtown Mount Dora.
At a time when the effect of increasing downtown building heights has been debated at City Hall, leaders and staff have turned a blind eye to an issue already negatively impacting downtown’s character. Although codes are intended to protect the aesthetics and safety of an area, Mount Dora’s clearly visible exterior code violations are only enforced when a complaint occurs, according to the City. This reactive policy, coupled with City staff’s practice of informing violators of the identity of the complainer, discouraged people from reporting hazards and caused obvious violations to snowball over several years.
Code enforcement policies don't need to be heavy-handed in order to be effective. Mount Dora could opt for a steady, proactive approach, in which business owners are first educated about the codes and then given ample time to correct any violations before they are cited. This approach could produce a safer and more charming environment, as well as promote goodwill among the downtown business community and provide the pedestrian- friendly sidewalks that taxpayers were sold eight years ago.
Mount Dora City Council held its second in a series of budget workshops on May 23rd.
We build our city's budget following several guiding principles. These include; Maintaining our City's infrastructure, Maintaining the public's safety, Compliance with all federal, state and local laws, and Retaining employees by providing competitive pay and benefits.
Two increased service levels will be considered for the upcoming budget year.
1. There is a proposal to hire a part time arborist at the cost of about $30,000 to continue to improve our efforts to take down dangerous or diseased trees on city property and to properly replace them.
2. There is a proposal to add a street sweeping machine dedicated to the downtown CRA area at a cost of about $210,000 and hiring a 20 hour per week street sweeper operator to run it. This new street sweeper would be paid for by the CRA and not included in the general fund budget.
FYI, our millage rate for the city over the past 10 years has ranged from a low of 5.6667 mills in 2013 and 2014 to a high of 6.3000 mills in 2018. For the past 2 years our millage has been set at 5.9603 partially because of our receiving supplemental Federal Cares Act Funds in 2020 and America Rescue Plan funds in 2021.
We don't yet have figures from Lake County for this year but we think that our Gross Taxable Values will increase by about 5%. We should have the actual increase figure within the next month.
The elephant in the room this year is inflation. Through April, the CPI, or inflation rate is up 8.3% year over year. We expect that trend to continue.
Due to growth we may need to add a Senior Planner and possibly 3 part time police dispatchers but nothing has been decided yet.
We will continue to meet over the next several months to develop a budget that will meet our guiding principles mentioned above while at the same time protecting our citizens from big tax increases. It's always a juggling act. You can count on lots of discussion of the data moving forward.
I forgot to include a quote to my last report and I apologize. To make it up to you, I've got 2 budget related quotes today.
The first is by Phil Gramm. "Balancing the budget is like going to heaven. Everybody wants to do it, but nobody wants to do what you need to to get there."
The second quote is from Dave Ramsey. "A budget is telling your money where to go instead of wondering where it went."