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A Times Editorial

Local issues requiring attention

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 14, 2001

Although the method and the money to improve Florida's elections system is expected to occupy much of their time when legislators converge on Tallahassee in March, there is plenty of other work to be done. Agendas change from year to year, but the priorities generally remain the same: education, children's services, crime, transportation, the environment, development and growth management.

As the Times has done before every legislative session since 1951, a series of commentaries will be published in February that attempts to focus public debate on the myriad challenges facing our state. The first will appear in the Perspective section Feb. 18 and continue for the next two Sundays. Those articles will identify the problems and offer solutions from a statewide viewpoint.

But there are regional concerns that demand the attention of lawmakers representing Citrus County. The trio that make up that delegation, state Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, state Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, and state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, will meet from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Masonic Building in downtown Inverness. They will accept comments from the public to help them cultivate an agenda to take to Tallahassee. We encourage residents to take advantage of this opportunity to be heard.

In that vein, we offer a half-dozen suggestions for our lawmakers to consider:

Manatees: The state Department of Environmental Protection needs to do more to protect manatees. Adequate enforcement of existing laws is essential, and that can be accomplished only through increased funding for marine patrols. It is not enough to establish no-wake zones and designate refuges and sanctuaries; the state must work closely with federal wildlife officials to ensure manatees are not being harassed by humans. And, when that occurs, the fines should be steep enough to deter repeat behavior. The Legislature also should spend more to educate the public about the importance of interacting only passively with the endangered species.

Transportation: Local legislators should work with the state Department of Transportation to accelerate several road projects in the region. One priority should be State Road 200 in Marion County. Even though it is outside Citrus County, many people here travel that route to work, shop and for recreational activities. The construction has dragged on for years and the breakneck residential and commercial growth along that corridor dictates that the DOT should accelerate its schedule to complete it.

Another project that needs prompt attention is the second phase of the Suncoast Parkway. The first phase of the highway, which ends at U.S. 98 just south of the border with Hernando County, will open this spring. Once motorists become comfortable using the north-south toll road as a shortcut from the Florida Panhandle to Interstate 75 and metropolitan Tampa Bay, it will put too much extra traffic on U.S. 19 through Homosassa and Crystal River. Any additional money the Legislature can allocate now for land acquisition and engineering will save taxpayers money and convenience in the long run.

Sewer/water projects: Local elected officials and residents have worked together admirably with the legislative delegation, especially Argenziano and Mitchell, to secure funding the past two years for water improvement projects in the county. The state has provided seed money to help the local effort to build central sewer lines to Homosassa and Chassahowitzka, which will improve water quality in the rivers by eliminating residents' dependence on antiquated septic systems. But it's only a beginning, and the legislators must continue to fund these projects.

Vocational education: In recent years there has been a movement to take away the responsibility for vocational and technical education from local school districts, and put it under the auspices of the state's community colleges. The idea has not been studied sufficiently to determine which oversight would be best, but this much is certain: It will have a significant economic impact on local districts if they lose state funding for vo-tech programs. Legislators should stay focused on the only pertinent question in this debate: How will the needs of students be served best?

The Cross Florida Barge Canal: The state Office of Greenways and Trails is building a 110-mile linear park alongside the man-made canal. It has the potential to become a premier recreational facility for boaters, hikers, bikers and campers, and will be a boon to the local economy when it opens. However, recreation projects often are placed on the chopping block first when legislators are looking for money to fund other projects. The Legislature needs to recognize this park for what it will be: a gem in the state's park system because of its central location and variety of recreational uses. The County Commission also must do its part to see this project through to completion.

Redistricting: Finally, lawmakers will undertake their once-a-decade chore of redrawing lines for legislative districts. The 2000 census will dictate the need for changes, but it will be the Legislature that will mold the statistics to its liking. Citrus County shares its legislators with other counties, and is on the fringe of both senators' districts. It is time for Citrus County to become the hub of a single Senate district, and for the southwestern quadrant of Rep. Argenziano's House district, which is in Hernando County, to be reapportioned. Not only will that provide continuity for Citrus County, it gives constituents in Hernando their own representative.

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