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Chassahowitzka being slighted, says advocate

He says county officials are playing favorites by lobbying for state money for a Homosassa central sewer.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 29, 2000


CHASSAHOWITZKA -- Mickey Newberger, an advocate of central sewers, feels Citrus County officials are being unfair to Chassahowitzka in their efforts to restore major funding for the ongoing Homosassa central sewer project.

While the proposed 2000-2001 state House budget included no money for the project, the proposal for central sewers in Chassahowitzka tentatively received $525,000. The Senate proposed $1-million for Chassahowitzka and $750,000 for Homosassa.

Last week, county officials scrambled to get money put back into the House budget for Homosassa after funding was rejected. County Administrator Gary Kuhl rushed to Tallahassee for meetings with state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, and other legislators in an effort to pump new life into the funding effort before Friday's Senate-House budget talks.

But they also made arguments that could undercut Chassahowitzka's standing. In conversations with top legislators, including Rep. Charles Sembler, chairman of the powerful General Government Appropriations Committee, they said an ongoing pollution study in Chassahowitzka is far from complete and that if money were approved for that project, it may never get used.

"I just really don't appreciate them trying to blame me for their failure to get money for Homosassa," Newberger said. "If they had gotten off their hands . . . they would have got money for Homosassa. They dropped the ball."

The county officials acknowledged they tried many ways to raise Homosassa's stature: pointing out the court order demanding the Riverhaven wastewater treatment plant be taken off line, past studies showing the river is being polluted by septic tanks and, finally, the ongoing success of the project. Phase I is months ahead of schedule.

Last Friday, Argenziano succeeded in passing an amendment that inserts $100,000 for Homosassa in the House budget. Both Bartell and Argenziano say they want both projects to get funding, but Newberger is clearly mistrustful of their intentions.

"We already have evidence to show there's a problem," with water quality in Chassahowitzka, Newberger said. "If it has to be Chassahowitzka or Homosassa, my choice is Chassahowitzka."

The evidence Newberger refers to comes from a one-day study by the University of South Florida that revealed high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Advanced testing strongly suggested the source was the surrounding septic tanks.

While lobbying in Tallahassee in recent weeks and months, Newberger presented the data, along with a list of people who became ill after spending time in the water, to legislators and members of the governor's water advisory panel. The panel is a group of legislators and governor's appointees who reviewed wastewater applications to see if they met newly established criteria.

Newberger, a Lutz resident who spent his childhood summers in Chassahowitzka and owns property off the river, says he resents implications he is an outsider meddling in county business. He particularly is irked by criticism of his relationship with Sembler, also a water advisory panel member.

"I knew him before he got to the Legislature," Newberger said. "But I've never been to dinner with him. I've never been fishing with him."

The truth, he said, is the county was overconfident in its grant request for Homosassa and got outworked -- by him.

"They absolutely felt we were a joke, and now they realize it ain't no joke," he said.

Newberger said he spoke Monday with Argenziano and on Tuesday with Bartell, who headed up to Tallahassee for meetings today with incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney and either Gov. Jeb Bush or Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. The conversations were frank, and, while they ended on a civil note, they did not resolve their differences, he said.

The House budget was a surprise for him as well, Newberger said. The original request was for $2.6-million.

"I thought I was going to get the whole thing," he said.

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