WUFT News

Orange Lake Levels Rising for First Time in More Than a Decade

By on April 11th, 2014 | Last updated: April 11, 2014 at 5:18 pm
The FWC restocked the lake’s depleted largemouth bass population with 100,000 bass fingerlings, but it’ll take at least a year or two before the fish mature and the depleted population is restored.

Lawrence Chan/ WUFT News

The FWC restocked the lake’s depleted largemouth bass population with 100,000 bass fingerlings. It’ll take at least a year before the fish mature and the depleted population is restored.

On a bad day at Orange Lake, Jeff Scepter can’t even get his boats into the water.

Floating piles of mud and vegetation, called tussocks, invade more than a thousand acres of the lake’s surface. Renters could get stuck out in the water if Scepter lets them leave with one of his boats.

“We used to have a lot of winter people come in and spend a couple months at a time fishing,” the Twin Lakes Fish Camp owner said “We’re getting more customers but it hasn’t really picked up like it has in the past.”

Business nearly evaporated with the water as the shoreline receded further and further from Scepter’s boat ramps. After years of receding shores and drought, this year’s rain has restored Orange Lake’s water levels to the highest it’s been in more than a decade, giving hope to local business owners that visitors will return.

Located 20 miles southeast of Gainesville, Orange Lake is North Central Florida’s largest lake. It’s one of 80 bodies of water the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission manages with a county, creating special limits for catching fish.

The lake’s water levels have slowly risen since 2011, moving from 50 feet above sea level to 58 feet, according to the St. Johns Water Management District.

The ­­lake has a history of fluctuating water levels. During times of drought the lake is anywhere between 1,000 acres to 1,200 acres, well below the lake’s normal size of about 13,000 acres, FWC regional freshwater fish biologist Allen Martin said.

Rainfall throughout 2013 and this year restored the lake to its normal size, allowing fish camps and boat rental companies along the lake’s shore to conduct business once again.

Years of drought have taken their toll, and businesses along the shore face new challenges from the restored lake.

Populations of fish on the lake were depleted due to habitat loss and predators feeding during the dry period. Populations of largemouth bass were especially affected, Martin said.

The commission restocked the lake with 100,000 bass fingerlings, juvenile fish between the stages of birth and adulthood, in March to jump start the population. Populations will not normalize for at least another year or two, he said.

Fish populations were previously depleted during a 2004 dry period and weren’t repopulated until 2009.

“The bass population will probably replenish itself over time without restocking,” Martin said. “But we’re hoping to shorten the amount of time until it becomes a really good fishery again.”

Another effect from the drought is the tussocks.

“When the lake goes very low like that it exposes mud flats where plants germinate and grow,” Martin said. “When the lake refills, the plant material becomes buoyant. Sometimes the mud associated with them pops and comes up from the bottom floating.”

The FWC contracted an aquatic harvesting company to clear out 50 acres of the lake along the southern tip. However, it would take the company’s harvesters five years before the lake is cleaned, according to the Ocala Star-Banner.

Casey Cirardin, owner of Sportsman’s Coves Resort, said hers is only one business to suffer losses during the dry years.

“The last six-and-a-half or seven years have been a disaster,” she said. “Quite a lot of the fish camps are out of business now.”

Cirardin’s business was unable to maintain its fish camp during the drought. She introduced long-term rentals of her RV units she had formerly rented for brief periods to visiting fishers.

“I’m not a fish camp anymore,” she said. “I’m just a rental community.”

She said at least three fish camps went out of business during the drought. While this year’s rain restored the lake, her business continues to trickle in slowly.

Few people are aware of the lake’s resurgence, she said.

“It’s so new that people aren’t notified yet,” she said. “Up until a month ago you couldn’t go out to the ramps.”

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April 11, 2014: Afternoon News in 90

By on April 11th, 2014 | Last updated: April 11, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Virginia Hamrick produced this update. 

 
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April 11, 2014: News in 90

By and on April 11th, 2014 | Last updated: April 11, 2014 at 10:38 am

Akeila Brown produced this update.

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Gainesville Software Startup Competes for Innovation Prize

By on April 11th, 2014 | Last updated: April 18, 2014 at 11:28 am
Narayan Ghiotti, one of the founders of Kinwa Inc., works inside the company's office in Gainesville's Innovation Hub. The group has been at the Hub for roughly six months and has begun testing its tagging system app around Gainesville.

Sean Stewart-Muniz/WUFT News

Narayan Ghiotti, one of the founders of Kinwa, Inc., works inside the company's office in Gainesville's Innovation Hub. The group has been at the Hub for roughly six months and has begun testing its tagging system app around Gainesville.

Four Gainesville innovators can’t wait until May.

Leland Cerauskis, Blake Matson, David Muir and Narayan Ghiotti of Kinwa, Inc., are among the four finalists selected for the Cade Museum Prize, a contest that challenges Florida start-up companies to create the world’s next game-changing invention.

The winner is awarded $50,000 and will be announced May 8 in the Fine Arts Hall at Santa Fe College.

This year, the contest received over 80 submissions. Finalists’ submissions include a simplified test for ovarian cancer from Boca Raton, a new waste recycling system from Tampa, a 3D-modeling method and an information app from Gainesville.

Muir, co-founder of Kinwa, helped create Bubble, an app for iOS, which he said provides pertinent information for the area in which a consumer may be present.

The Samuel P. Harn Museum is currently using the app for its exhibits, Muir said.  If a consumer is at the museum, a bubble pops up on the screen of the app. The bubble leads to a specific URL for information on the exhibit.

Muir said the app functions off of low-power, egg-shaped Bluetooth transmitters, which are placed throughout a specific area. The transmitters connect to a consumer’s phone, and the app is able to read a specific URL from it. One tap of the transmitter’s snapshot bubble brings up the desired webpage.

Businesses will have to buy their own transmitters, which sell for about $30 each and last for one to two years. They will also pay to use the app to manage their transmitters and have their URLs included, but the app is free for users.

Narayan Ghiotti, co-founder of Kinwa, said the company is focusing on expanding the app’s appeal to businesses. The company is also looking to put the app on the Android market, as well as create an administrative app, so businesses can manage their tags on the go.

“We see our technology as the seamless gateway between the physical and digital world,” he said.

Richard Miles, vice president of the Cade Museum Foundation, said the judges are evaluating the contestants based on three criteria: how innovative the product is, the breadth of its impact and the likelihood of its success.

Muir said the final product is ready to go. If the team wins they’ll be able to market themselves worldwide and keep development going for the foreseeable future.

“We’re ready to take it to the world,” he said. “We’re going to try and explode into existence.”

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Buchholz High School Students Prepare Community Tax Returns

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 11, 2014 at 12:21 am
(Left to right) Ryan Warm, 15, watches as Blake Williams, 15, and Zach McAfee, 14, prepare Dawn Walker and William Walker's 2013 taxes. Eighty-seven Buchholz Academy of Finance students are certified tax preparers and volunteer at their computer lab on Tuesdays as a United Way Volunteer Income Tax Assistance site.

Claudia Marina/ WUFT News

(Left to right) Ryan Warm, 15, watches as Blake Williams, 15, and Zach McAfee, 14, prepare Dawn Walker and William Walker's 2013 taxes.

Ryan Warm spends his Tuesdays voluntarily preparing tax returns for his community— after school gets out.

Warm, 15, is one of 87 students in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at F.W. Buchholz High School.

VITA is an “IRS initiative designed to promote and support free tax preparation service for the underserved,” according to the IRS website.

This year, the United Way of North Central Florida partnered with F. W. Buchholz to certify the school’s Academy of Finance students to prepare tax returns. The school is one of 12 VITA sites in North Central Florida, and it is the first high school in the area to have students in the program.

Debbie Mason, the president and CEO of United Way of North Central Florida, said all Buchholz students went through the same tax-prep certification process as anyone else.

Jennifer Stojkovic, a member of the United Way of North Central community impact team, focuses on health and income issues. She said students began working toward their IRS certification at the start of tax season in January.

Though the course takes about 12 hours, the students received their training over a three-month period by integrating the program into their regular curriculum, she said.

Stojkovic oversees the program. As of April 2, students have prepared 40 tax returns.

Certified students stay after school on Tuesdays from 5  to 8 p.m. to prepare taxes for people with low-to-moderate income for free. VITA is available to those making $52,000 or less per year.

Stojkovic said this amount is more of a target than a limit because they never turn anyone away.

Michele Brothers, the director of Buchholz’s Academy of Finance, said tax return preparation was already part of the curriculum. However, students are now able to utilize their skills on a wider scale.

“One night, no lie, we had three people here having their taxes done, and I just wanted to know how much they paid last year,” Brothers said. “On average, they paid over $300 to have their tax returns done.”

Warm said he appreciates the opportunity. Despite being intimidated at first, Warm said having the certification alleviates some of his stress. He said it is comforting to know he will be able to do his own taxes in the future.

Jared Taber, the assistant principal of curriculum at Buchholz, said he believes the program gives students confidence.

“I think it means something to a high school student when you have somebody who’s considerably older than you are, and they’re coming to you with their financial information and trusting you to make decisions for them,” Taber said.

Behnaz Pat, a community member who benefitted from the program, said the students discovered she was about $900 off in her 2013 tax return.

“It was nice to see people at such a young age that are independent and can take care of this,” Pat said.

The students will prepare tax returns through the April 15 deadline.

In addition to the Buchholz location, Stojkovic said the United Way of North Central Florida Gainesville office will also serve as a free tax return preparation location on April 15 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

“Some of them have come just one night, and they’re like, ‘Can we come another night, Ms. Brothers? That was fun,’” Brothers said.

 

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UF Begins Second Search for 12th University President

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 10, 2014 at 8:06 pm

The creation of a presidential search committee was authorized at a University of Florida Board of Trustees meeting on April 10.

Of the 12 trustees, 11 were present either in person or by phone for the 12-minute meeting. Current University President Bernie Machen was included in the meeting via telephone conference.

In the 2012 presidential search, the previous committee decided on criteria by Aug. 28, 2012. The committee expressed a desire to stay on track with a similar schedule in this next search.

The trustees said they are hopeful that it will not be necessary to redo all the work that went into establishing the previous search criteria. They are focused on addressing whether the criteria needs to reflect the UF Rising campaign goal, as well as UF’s preeminence initiative.

Board member Steven Scott has been appointed as the chairman of the search. The next step is to name members to the committee and subcommittee, which Scott plans on doing in the next week.

Janine Sikes, the UF spokeswoman, said Scott and the future members of the search committee must determine whether the 2012 criteria adequately reflects UF’s new status as a preeminent university.

“This is the beggining of what could be a six month to a year-long process in the search for the 12th president of the University of Florida,” Sikes said.

Sikes said UF plans on posting the position on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website in the fall of 2014.

“Well it’d be interesting to have input into it, whether directly or to help engage the faculty in the conversation,” said Marc Heft, a UF Board of Trustees member.

UF released a presidential search update after the conclusion of Thursday’s meeting. The Board is requesting comments from the Gator community on updating the criteria.

The university’s goal is to name a new president by the end of the spring 2015 semester, according to a UF news release.

After the meeting, Heft said, “We’re really optimistic as we move forward that we’ll be able to let Bernie go into retirement.”

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Proposed Legislation To Focus On Florida Foster Children

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 10, 2014 at 6:51 pm

In a predominately rural area with limited public transportation, driving in North Central Florida tends to be seen as a necessity and not just a privilege.

For youth in foster care, obtaining a driver’s license is not an opportunity that many have due to concerns over potential liability and the cost of insurance for foster parents, said Jenn Petion, the director of community and government relations for Partnership for Strong Families.

The Florida Legislature is currently reviewing two bills to help remove these obstacles. House Bill 977 and Senate Bill 744 will help provide motor vehicle insurance and driver’s education for children in foster care.

Partnership for Strong Families provides child welfare and related services to 13 counties. At any time, there are about 150 children in licensed foster care in North Central Florida.

A survey of 930 foster children conducted by the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in 2013 revealed only 88 of the children between the ages of 15 and 17 had a learners permit. Only 20 of the 687 who were old enough to drive had obtained a license.

For Monna Anderson, an 18-year-old foster child from Brooker, Fla., a driver’s license would mean being able to start her own life.

She said she re-entered foster care when she was 16 and did not have the financial means to get a permit or a license.

Without a license, Anderson said she is forced to depend on other people to drive the 45 minutes to Santa Fe College for her classes or if she has anywhere else to go. She also said it is difficult to earn enough money to move out of her foster home without a dependable way to get to a job.

“Everything that I do has to work around her schedule,” she said in regard to her foster mom providing Anderson’s main transportation.

Paul Crawford, the 8th judicial circuit director for the Guardian ad Litem program, said having a teenager on an insurance plan can be expensive. Motor vehicle insurance is estimated to cost about $2,000 per year, according to the Senate’s version of the bill.

Foster children are often moved from one area to another, which can make it difficult for students to get into school-offered driver’s education courses, Crawford said.

The legislation proposed by Republican Sen. Nancy Detert in the Senate and Republican Rep. Ben Albritton in the House attempts to address and get rid of these barriers.

“Foster kids need a consistent, dedicated champion in the (Fla.) House,” Albritton wrote in an email. “I for one choose to stand in the gap for them.”

Both bills call for the DCF to establish a statewide three-year pilot program that would pay the costs of driver education, licensure and motor vehicle insurance for those foster children who complete a driver’s education program.

The legislation would also require schools to give priority to foster children under DCF care when registering for driver’s education courses.

Albritton’s proposed House bill estimates cost at about $1.5 million, while the Senate bill seeks about $800,000 in funds.

“We will accept whatever appropriation will allow these kids to have the (driver’s license) in their hands and experience that normal right of passage,” Albritton said. “The fight is about principle, not the dollar amount.”

Minors cannot purchase their own motor vehicle insurance unless a court order removes their disability of nonage.

“A circuit court has jurisdiction to remove the disabilities of nonage of a minor age 16 or older residing in this state upon a petition filed by the minor’s natural or legal guardian or, if there is none, by a guardian ad litem,” according to Florida Statute  743.015.

This disability places legal restrictions on minors. If the court order is granted, the minor gains the same rights and responsibilities as an adult.

In bigger cities, where public transportation is readily available, this legislation might not mean as much, Petion said. However, she said for the more rural communities throughout North Central Florida this legislation would be a great benefit.

Petion and Crawford said this is about more than removing the barriers of liability and insurance costs.

“Our kids are normal kids,” Petion said. “They should be allowed to do normal teen activities and driving has become one of those things.”

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April 10, 2014: Afternoon News In 90

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 10, 2014 at 5:00 pm

Stephanie Matarazzo produced this update. 

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April 10, 2014: Morning News In 90

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 10, 2014 at 11:29 am

Sabrina Alvarez produced this update.

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In The News: Concealed Weapons Bill, Day Care Crash, I-75 Arrest With $350,000 in Marijuana, Tuition Increases and Illegal Immigrants, School Voucher Program

By on April 10th, 2014 | Last updated: April 10, 2014 at 10:21 am
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