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Citrus leaders hope bus trip brings legislators on board

Officials from around the county go to Tallahassee in an effort to win support for local projects.


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- About 30 Citrus County school, government and business leaders packed into a bus bound for the capital Wednesday, bringing with them their funding requests and concerns about proposed policies.

They had plenty to say. Their job was finding someone to listen.

Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, could not steal a moment away from the Senate floor to make her 10:30 a.m. appointment with the Citrus leaders, and her schedule had no opening for the group later in the day.

School Board members found someone else who could make the time: Rep. Everett Kelly, R-Tavares, the challenger for Cowin's seat this fall.

"A lot of people have come up here with something to say, and they just want to talk to someone about it," School Board member Patience Nave told Kelly.

Those who came along for the first Citrus County legislative day got to meet for about a half-hour with Kelly and later for another half-hour with Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River. A few even got to buzz in the ear of Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, over lunch.

No one walked away with new funding or the guaranteed passage of any policy, but the day was a chance to remind Tallahassee of Citrus County's needs and put faces to the pleas that local leaders have already sent by mail and phone.

"I've been in business a long time, and there's no substitute for discussing things over lunch and after hours," Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni said. "We've done well over the phone, but you need to meet face to face with the people you do business with."

DiGiovanni and three Inverness City Council members went to promote their Cooter Pond improvement plans.

The governor's panel has recommended an $800,000 water quality grant for Cooter Pond. City officials want legislators to keep that funding in the budget and consider more money in the future to develop the surrounding area into a string of parks.

County Administrator Gary Kuhl and four of the five commissioners spent Wednesday and part of Thursday lobbying for funding for the Homosassa sewer project, now at $100,000 in the House budget after initially being left out, and other county issues.

For example, four bills this session would reduce or eliminate the intangible tax, costing Citrus County between $791,733 and $2.7-million annually.

Another bill would send the proceeds from court-ordered fines to the state, depriving the counties of that revenue.

"We're willing to shoulder our responsibility, but we don't want to take on more than we had intended on," Commissioner Vicki Phillips said. "We just want to go through the process and have them hear our concerns."

School officials also came with financial concerns, including the lack of matching funds for money raised by public school foundations like the Citrus County Education Foundation.

For years, similar foundations for state universities and community colleges have received millions of dollars in state matching funds.

Another proposal, to change exceptional student education funding from an as-needed basis to block grants, would short change the school district, School Board member Carl Hansen said.

"If we get more children to serve, we still don't get any more money," Hansen said. "Federal law requires us to serve these children, and morally we are obligated to do so, but this becomes an unfunded mandate."

Crystal River City Council member Alex Ilnyckyj expressed his frustration that no money was set aside for any of the city's water projects.

"You have to take the funding from someone else's project," Argenziano told Ilnyckyj. "And let me tell you, up here, that's hard to do."

The Capitol building swarmed with lobbyists and local officials from throughout the state, all of them tugging at legislators and pulling for a piece of the budget.

Citrus leaders knew they represented just one of many competing interests, but they wanted to make sure the small county's needs did not go unnoticed.

"We may be small, but we are a vital and important county," said Betty Pleacher, the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce organizer of the Tallahassee trip. "We care about what legislation passes, and we want to be kept in the forefront of consideration for the grants we've applied for."

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