Sumter makes strides over past four years

Liz Beth labels the variety of citrus rootstocks in the laboratory of Agromillora, one of Sumter County’s economic development success stories.

Election season is nearing as Sumter County voters soon will get their hands on ballots. A common question they may ask: “Is my county better off than it was four years ago?” Voters wanting that information will find Sumter County has been making gains over the last four years when it comes to crime rates, health care, roads, property values and the like. Last summer, some suggested that three open county commission seats would be a one-issue election — the property tax rate — but voters can certainly measure the county’s performance in a variety of criteria. In the months ahead, candidates surely will discuss the state of the county in their respective campaigns. Here’s how the county rates over the last four years under the current commission in these areas:

Low Crime Rate? Yes

Sumter is a safe place to live, according to data the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office provided the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sheriff’s deputies worked 1,079 crimes per 100,000 residents for the year ended Dec. 31, 2019, a 7.6% four-year decrease, according to the FDLE data. Property crimes per 1,000 residents is less than half the national rate. The 9.27 property crimes per 1,000 residents, compares with a national rate of 22.98. Violent crimes per 1,000 residents was 2.44, compared with a national rate of 3.87.

The results would not be possible without the quality working relationship between the sheriff’s office and county leaders, said Chief Deputy Chris Haworth.

“The reality is our response times remains low, the crime rate remains low, and that’s all due to the synergistic relationship with the county administration to apply tax dollars in a frugal, consistent and effective manner,” he said.

Regional Roadways? Yes

In September, the commission took a bold step by adopting the first increase in the county’s property tax rate in 14 years to, in part, support required regional roadway infrastructure improvements as The Villages expands south.

The decision represents sound leadership by investing tax dollars now to prevent future traffic gridlock that would diminish the quality of life in Sumter County, Hank Fishkind, Ph.D., one of Florida’s most respected economists, told the Daily Sun.

Without this action, Fishkind said, the county risks the trouble experienced in Collier County.

Collier commissioners permitted rapid development without a regional roadway strategy and now copes with some of the worst traffic problems in the state, he said. In response, it now charges some of the most onerous building impact fees in the state.

Sumter roadway projects in the last four years includes appropriations for roadway improvements not only in The Villages but elsewhere in the county. It includes the revitalization of Morse and Buena Vista boulevards, improvements to County Road 475 to Bushnell from CR 470 and CR 475, where it connects with CR 466 south of Marion County, as well as many other projects completed and planned.

Health Care? Yes

The county experienced substantial health care gains over the past years, that county leaders approved.

Recently completed projects include the Center for Advanced Healthcare at Brownwood, a multispecialty medical center, and the complementary Brownwood Hotel & Spa, the UF Health The Villages Hospital Freestanding Emergency Room, as well as expansion of The Villages Health primary care system.

The Center for Advanced Healthcare offers new and convenient technological medical services to all county residents, said Braulio Vicente Jr., executive director for specialty care at The Villages Health.

“This whole facility was obviously created first and foremost to meet the needs of Villagers in the community, but also a regional draw,” he said. “You have innovation in technology being developed here that can be made available to anyone in the region.”

Even more health care opportunities are planned with the pending development of a new UF Health acute care hospital and medical research park.

Tax Base Diversified? Yes

The commission adopted policy over the past four years to enhance its economic development efforts to diversify the county’s tax base.

Its support of new business development and expansion helps offset the tax base, since businesses traditionally carry a higher tax burden than residential homeowners.

Proof of the effectiveness of that strategy includes the development approvals for the Gov. Rick Scott Industrial Park south of Coleman. Several large-scale industrial-manufacturing projects already are under construction.

It also includes the recruitment of Agromillora Florida, a holding of the world’s largest culture nursery for fruit and trees, and support for the large-scale expansions such as Primus Pipe & Tube, a $32 million investment; Great Southern Wood, a $12 million investment; and MAPEI Corp., a $20 million investment.

Stable Property Values? Yes

New business development and expansion, along with new homes, contributes to the continuing increase in the county’s total residential and commercial property values.

Total residential and commercial property values grew by 27% to around $19 billion over the four years ended Dec. 31, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Revenue.

Over the past 10 years, Sumter led the state in the percentage increase in total property value. It grew by 107% during that time.

Analysts at Moody’s Investors Service recognized the significance of that gain in their latest Sumter County credit report.

“The full value of the county’s tax base is significantly larger than the U.S. median, and increased dramatically between 2014 and 2018,” the report stated. “Additionally, the full value per capita is much stronger than that of other Moody’s-rated counties nationwide.”

Government Efficiencies? Yes

Sumter County leads the state when it comes to the number of both accredited county services and public-private partnerships.

Much of that achievement occurred over the past four years, and even earned national recognition at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based research group that promotes free-market principles.

“The ability to enter so many beneficial contracts shows leadership that is dedicated to finding the best ways to deliver citizen services,” Austill Stuart, the foundation’s director of privatization and government reform, told the Daily Sun.

Outsourced services include the county’s libraries, ambulance and transport, misdemeanor probation, information technology, legal, building and fire inspections, code enforcement, facilities maintenance, engineering, janitorial, transit, solid waste, mosquito control, fire-ambulance dispatch, public safety radio, fleet maintenance and debris hauling and monitoring.

Senior writer David R. Corder can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.