Senior commissioner is swing vote on county goals
By GREG HAMILTON
Published April 23, 2006
From the firing of County Administrator Richard Wesch, to the rejection of plans for an RV park on an Inverness lake, to sending RealtiCorp's designers back to the drawing board, the new majority on the County Commission has telegraphed to residents and staff alike what is not going to fly in Citrus County.
So, what is going to pass muster? What sort of projects and initiatives will win the approval of Gary Bartell, Vicki Phillips and Joyce Valentino?
The three commissioners are not exactly in lock-step - witness the deep differences of opinion over the plans for sewer lines in Chassahowitzka. But more often than not, they see eye-to-eye philosophically.
Their collective view is at odds with that of Commissioners Jim Fowler and Dennis Damato, who have found themselves on the frustrating end of 3-2 votes lately. It is a position familiar to Bartell and Phillips, who have spent years as the minority bloc.
While it is dangerous to make such sweeping generalizations about five very distinct personalities, they have just made this dicey process a lot easier.
On Tuesday, the commissioners will review a revised list of the goals that the board set this year. Since then, the board has also jettisoned its county administrator, leaving the staff in need of some concrete direction.
In advance of this meeting, the commissioners have ranked the 23 goals in order of importance. The list is very telling, with a wide disparity that makes you wonder if they are all living in the same county.
Where Commissioner Phillips lists septic tank inspections as her main priority, fellow Commissioner Fowler considers this a virtual afterthought at 20. A zero-based budget every three years is Valentino's top issue, while it is last on Damato's list.
A water quality infrastructure fund is tops for Damato and Fowler, middle of the pack for Bartell and Valentino, and scraping bottom for Phillips.
The list is more than just a look into the minds of the commissioners. Consider it a crystal ball or a pack of Tarot cards that can predict the future for this board, at least unless there are some major upsets in this year's commission elections.
With county staff expecting to be told to start researching the top five goals and to provide estimates of time and costs, by looking at the list you can see where this board is headed.
Expect, for example, stronger language in the Land Development Code to prohibit attempts by developers to get around limits on density and intensity in coastal areas by using a tool called a Planned Development Overlay. Bartell, Phillips, Valentino and even Damato have ranked this among their top 10 goals (Fowler has it at 22).
Septic system inspections, zero-based budgeting and supplying emergency shelters with generators all will get staff's immediate attention. Erecting signs near active mines, expanding the Crystal River Airport runway to 5,000 feet, reducing setbacks for waterfront construction will have long waits.
Interestingly, all five commissioners managed to rank an item at No. 24, even though there were only 23 goals listed. While they all made the same mistake, each left out a different number, thereby reinforcing their independence, I suppose.
It is fair to say that the commissioners all agree that water quality - protecting and improving it - is the county's main concern. They just have widely different notions of how to handle this challenge.
The goals list breaks this down into a number of specific points including: reining in the use of fertilizers, developing a master plan for stormwater runoff, curtailing filling in flood plains, inspecting septic tanks and setting wastewater standards. Commissioners are all over the map on the relative importance of these issues.
Take the notion of having a fund, fed by property tax revenues, that would be used to offset the high costs of hooking into sewer and water systems. This has been a hot topic in Chassahowitzka, where residents at one point were looking at utility assessments of more than $11,000.
Fowler is pushing the idea of this permanent fund, which would cap at $5,000 the amount that any resident could be assessed for a sewer connection. He and Damato listing this as their main priority.
By contrast, Bartell and Valentino have it at No. 12, with Phillips giving it a 21.
Bartell, the commission chairman, explains his reasoning. This fund, he notes, already exists. It has been in the county budget for many years and has been used as intended, to collect money that is then used to secure matching grants from the state and federal government for utility projects.
While Bartell is sympathetic with the severe hardship that the rising costs of infrastructure and utilities is putting on homeowners, he thinks the best, and fairest, way to help is to buy down the costs at the front end through matching grants.
Putting a cap on assessments now is not only unrealistic given the explosive costs, but it is unfair to the thousands of Citrus residents who have had to pay high assessments without any help from their neighbors.
Bartell's views on this and all other controversial issues on the horizon are of utmost importance because he is likely to be the deciding vote on all of them. With his colleagues nearly always arranging themselves into neat pairs, Bartell - the senior commissioner with 16 years of service - settles the issue.
In effect, his vision for Citrus County will become our future. How does he feel about this?
"It's reality," the Swingman said adding, diplomatically, "We (the commissioners) are not as far apart as we appear on a lot of issues."
"I'm a moderate. I want everybody to play by the same set of rules. I want each (development) applicant dealt with fairly, but to be held to our community standards. If they don't like it, they can move on. I want to send the message to county staff: Just do your job and don't worry about the politics."
As for handling the various personalities on the board and calming the friction that is becoming more evident at commission meetings and which was on full display during the dismissal of Wesch, Bartell thinks he can maintain control.
"I recognize that each commissioner is an individual. All I can tell you is that I won't let personalities interfere with us getting the job done."
And how about being able to lead this disparate board where it needs to go?
"The citizens won't accept anything less. If we don't do it, they will put new people on the board to get it done."
That should be goal No. 1 for all five commissioners.
[Last modified April 23, 2006, 00:49:08]
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