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A Times Editorial

A compromise undone

© St. Petersburg Times
published June 23, 2002

It has been said that politics is the art of compromise. If that's true, then the Brooksville City Council needs better politicians.

After months of negotiations with the Hernando County Commission about who is capable and willing to provide water and sewer service areas outside the city limits, it appeared the council and commissioners were on the verge of an agreement. But last week the council rejected the deal proposed by commission chairwoman Nancy Robinson and council member Joe Johnston III, choosing instead a strident -- some might say stubborn -- stance that threatens to undo the progress that has been made recently.

Another joint meeting of the full council and commission is scheduled for Monday, and it may be the last chance for the sides to reach a compromise before personalities and animosity cause each to dig in its heels.

That outcome will benefit no one. It is time for the level-headed and reasonable members of both governing boards to assume the leadership roles they were elected to fill, persuading their more impulsive and short-sighted colleagues of the importance of striking a deal sooner rather than later.

This debate came about because Brooksville wanted to provide utility service to Hampton Ridge, a golf course development with about 800 homes east of U.S. 41 and north of Powell Road. The developer, the LandMar Group of Jacksonville, wants to be annexed into the city, a move fully supported by the council, which covets the revenue it will collect in property taxes and fees for utilities.

Initially, the county opposed that idea, because it also wanted to provide those services. Feeling threatened, the City Council informed the county that it intended to sue to establish its right to provide utility service anywhere within 5 miles of the city limits. Since then, the county and city -- specifically County Administrator Richard Radacky, City Manager Richard Anderson, Commissioner Robinson and council member Johnston -- have been trying to hammer out a compromise to keep the dispute out of court.

Success appeared attainable when the commission acquiesced on the Hampton Ridge issue, but then another turf war broke out to the west of town, where Brooksville Regional Hospital plans to build a new hospital. Hospitals use lots of water, which is what makes this one an attractive potential customer.

Again, Robinson and Johnston reached a compromise. The county would take the hospital and allow Brooksville to serve all the surrounding parcels, which one day will be the site of numerous doctors' offices, clinics and related support services.

But the City Council, influenced by the objections of members Richard Lewis and Ernie Wever, thumbed its nose at the compromise. That news was not received favorably by county commissioners, who say it will be easier and cheaper for the county to connect to the hospital site, and who also question the city's physical and financial capacity to handle the job.

The hospital is not a new toy to be fought over like children in a sandbox. In fact, pending the outcome of an appeal by competitor Oak Hill Hospital, there's still a possibility the state may not allow the move to that location.

But if it is approved, as expected, it makes sense that it be connected to the county's utility system. The county owns the license to the beds at Brooksville Regional, and because of its agreement with HMA, the parent company, it will assume ownership of the hospital and the land it's on someday.

This disagreement is not worth scrapping the proposal, and the City Council should carefully weigh the consequences of its continued opposition. This could easily wind up in a lengthy court battle, which taxpayers will involuntarily underwrite.

If, after Monday's meeting, it appears the council is heading down that path, city taxpayers should demand the council provide an estimate of how much this ill-advised legal fight will cost them, and which part of the budget will be raided to finance the attempt. Residents also should be told how long it may take to declare a victor.

Compromise is more than an art; it is the essential ingredient in every successful negotiation. To that end, the proposal the council rejected last week had something for everyone. It would be a poor business decision, and more important, a disservice to constituents, to not reconsider.

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