WINTER HAVEN — If local government officials and leaders had to summarize the state of Polk County, it would likely come down to one word: growth.
Coming off of two years managing COVID-19, Polk County has experienced unprecedented amounts of growth. It's the fastest-growing county in Florida and the seventh-fastest growing in the nation.
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The way that Polk's fast-paced growth has affected and will continue to affect the character of the county was a main point of conversation Thursday at the State of the County presentation. The event, put on by Polk Vision and associate partner organizations at the Polk State College Center for Public Safety, featured the following keynote speakers:
Polk County Commissioner and Chairman Martha Santiago
Polk County Manager Bill Beasley
School Board Chair Sara Beth Wyatt
Polk County Superintendent Frederick Heid
Director of the Florida Department of Health in Polk County Dr. Joy Jackson.
This is the first time the event has been held since 2019.
Other elected officials filled the auditorium seats, such as Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz, County Commissioner George Lindsey, Winter Haven Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Birdsong and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
During her presentation, Santiago stood in front of a screen that declared: "State of the County is Strong!"
"Is this big enough for you? Is it bold enough for you?" Santiago said, referring to the message.
Santiago pointed to some of Polk's strongest numbers: a 3.7% unemployment rate, with growth primarily in the leisure and hospitality, logging and construction, and trade, transportation, and utilities industries. Over the past five years, the county has seen nearly 6.4 million square feet of new and occupied square footage, $1.15 billion in new capital investment and 6,687 total jobs, according to the Central Florida Development Council. And between March 2021 and February 2022, tourism and sports marketing set 12 consecutive record months in sales.
"To be able to stand here and tell you the county is strong — that's, that's amazing," Santiago said.
Polk's growth: By the numbers
Santiago said that over the last two years, 58,000 people have moved to Polk County. According to the census, 725,046 people lived in Polk County in 2020, up from 602,095 people in 2010.
"We're talking about adding 55, 56 people a day in this county — every day, all year long, for the next 10 years," Beasley said. "I think 2030, at this rate, I think 2030 you're going to see somewhere around 950 [thousand]. We may be getting to this magic million population number a lot sooner than we thought we would."
Jackson noted that most of the population increase in Polk County stems from immigration rather than new births. There were 7,984 births in Polk County in 2020, which Jackson said is about the same as in 2008.
Additionally, those who are 65 and older make up 20% of the population and are the fastest-growing segment, increasing 24% over the past 10 years.
Polk's population growth is reflected in new construction.
Across the county in 2020, 10,901 building permits for single-family residences were pulled. That number is projected to be 12,562 for the 2021-2022 fiscal year and 14,143 for the following year.
In terms of total building permits, 52,684 were pulled for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Beasley said. That number is expected to swell to 56,432 permits for the 2021-2022 year and then increase again to 59,976 permits for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. Those numbers do not include permits filed in Haines City or Winter Haven, two of Polk's fastest-growing areas.
"What you're seeing is not linear growth. Single-family residential construction, you're talking about now something that's exponential in growth," Beasley said. "That growth curve has been phenomenal."
Despite the uptick in new residential construction, affordable housing has continued to be a weak spot for the county, especially as home prices and rental rates soar. It's led some local governing bodies, like Lakeland and Winter Haven, to pledge to increase their respective cities' affordable housing inventories in the coming year.
But Beasley is unsure that elected officials should be who people turn to when the cost of living gets too high. He said that while local governments can look at impact fees or land development codes, it's mostly outside of public control.
"I'm not sure that local government is a driver or a controller of affordable housing. Affordable housing is simply a function of the market system. When you look at a two-bedroom, small ranch that's running $300(thousand), $400,000 today, how does that manifest into government action?" Beasley said. "Outside of a few small nuances that we may have an avenue towards, I think that our ability to control affordable housing pricing and qualifications is limited."
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For the 2021-2022 fiscal year, over $1.6 billion has been invested in Polk County for residential and commercial development. That's a jump from the under $1.2 billion invested between 2020 and 2021, and an even larger increase from the lowest point in the last decade — just under $200 million invested in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.
The county has not yet caught up to its previous peak of over $1.7 billion worth of investment between 2007 and 2008.
"This is exponential growth now," Beasley said. "That kind of growth is unheard of and how — can we sustain that kind of growth? I don't know."
Infrastructure buckles under pressure
That level of growth has led to a strain on resources and infrastructure, such as water, schools, and roads.
Over 200,000 people are expected to arrive in Polk's northeast planning district alone before 2045. The population growth is expected to come with 91,361 new dwelling units, according to county projections.
That northeastern sector is expected to drive demand for 204 lane miles, 38,554 students, 25,232 fire calls, and 31,489 sheriff calls.
Overall, the county is expected to see additional demand for 280 lane miles, 61,421 students, 40,128 fire calls, and 49,982 sheriff calls. To meet 2045 demands, utilities across Polk County will need an additional 21.4 million gallons of water per day, according to Beasley's presentation.
The county is already working to address its fire and public safety needs.
Within the next few months, the county will wrap the first of four phases of construction of new fire stations and improvements to existing fire stations. Beasley said the final price tag is between $75 million and $80 million for the new and upgraded fire facilities.
The county is also set to invest $14.5 million in a new, state-of-the-art fire rescue training facility.
On the public safety side, the county is going to spend $7 million on a new training center and $9 million on the Poinciana substation. The county is also going to spend $1.5 million to upgrade its canine training facility.
"The number one priority for Polk County — past boards, current boards, future boards — is public safety," Beasley said. "If you dial 911, we're coming and we're bringing the cavalry."
Transportation is also a concern. Beasley touched on the two main proposals for extending mass transit to Polk County: Brightline and Sunrail. Since Brightline is a destination-based, high-speed rail option, it's unclear whether a stop in Polk County will be necessary as Brightline extends to Tampa. But Beasley pointed out that it is a privately-funded option, unlike Sunrail.
"Unlike Brightline, a commitment to this means a major financial commitment by local governments, major financial commitments — not just pennies, major financial commitments," Beasley said. "This comes with major, long-term operational, financial cost obligations to local governments."
The state is investing hundreds of millions of dollars into the Polk transportation system. The county is contributing, too, with over $330 million dollars dedicated to six road improvement projects underway today. That includes $100.6 million to widen five miles of Thompson Nursery Road, what Beasley said may be the "largest, single local project that we ever accomplish in Polk County." It also includes $9.5 million to widen two miles of North Ridge Trail between Deen Still and Sand Mine Road, which is backed by state funding because it will take traffic off US-27.
But much remains to be done. The county has 20 priority projects that are currently unfunded, totaling nearly $1.2 billion in needed funds.
"As a country, we fought and won World War II in four years," Beasley said. "It's taken me six years to build a road."
Strains on the school system
The strain of growth can also be seen in the Polk County public school system.
Next school year, enrollment in Polk public schools is expected to grow by 6,000 students, to 116,000 total students in the system.
"That is three full high schools," Wyatt said. "Our elementary schools are a little bit smaller, so that's probably six or seven full elementary schools."
The demographics of the students are also changing. The school system is now majority-minority, with 39.9% of students being Hispanic or Latino, 35.5% being white, 20% being Black, 2% being multiracial, 1.5% being Asian and 0.4% being American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
Meanwhile, 67.1% of instructional staff are white and 65.5% of administrative staff are white.
"One of the things that we're working on is making sure that our instructional staff and our administrative staff align more closely to our student population," Wyatt said.
The school district needs to hire more staff in general, reflecting a nationwide problem with recruiting and retaining teachers. On a typical day, the district averages 150 instructional vacancies and 60 bus driver vacancies, Heid said.
The county is working to offer more competitive salaries, though Heid wants to explore some cost-saving measures while the school system undergoes strategic planning. He gave an example of how when he was a building principal, he could hire one teacher for $60,000. Or, he could offer a teacher willing to forfeit their planning time $6,000 to cover that period.
"If you do the math, I can pay one person $60,000 to teach five periods, or I can pay 10 people $6,000 apiece and I would get 10 sections out of it," Heid said. "So I get a highly-skilled, highly-qualified teacher who can then address the needs of my students but I'm not necessarily adding a full-time employee. I'm just maximizing that salary and spreading it out differently so I actually get more bang for my buck."
Polk's continued growth will drive the need for 25-30 new school sites, Heid said. The district is going to undergo a comprehensive rezoning of its schools for the first time in decades, Wyatt added.
The half-cent sales tax referendum is currently supporting the cost of nine new schools, 11 modernizations, 45 classroom additions, 50 playgrounds, and six gymnasiums.
The school system will also be giving every student in Kindergarten through 12th-grade access to an iPad or laptop as well as access to some form of Internet connectivity. The devices are being made available through a $28 million grant.
Staff will be trained on how to incorporate those devices into instruction during early release days, which will be moved from Wednesdays to Fridays next year and align with long weekends. There will be 10 early release days.
Maya Lora covers Polk County government and countywide issues. She can be reached with tips or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mayaklora.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk officials talk growth at State of the County event this week