County investigates funding options
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
© St. Petersburg Times,
Instead of increasing the sales tax or creating taxing districts, some county commissioners are exploring ways to pay for big-ticket items that may be needed in the coming years. While the school system weighs its own options, county staffers are researching the following possibilities. The commission will decide what to do this summer.
The county has $44.5-million in water and sewer projects scheduled for the next five years, but only $13.8-million in grants. The projects range from expanding the Homosassa wastewater system to spending $16.1-million moving water mains for the widening of County Road 486, County Road 491 and Croft Avenue.
Increase rates: An Orlando consultant, Public Resources Management Group, is finishing a report that will suggest ways to update the county's 12-year-old utility rates. The report will outline ideas for rate increases and user fees. "We have to get our rates in line to where the system pays for itself," Commissioner Josh Wooten said.
Obtain financing through the Florida Governmental Utility Authority: Last May, the county joined the GUA, a multicounty group that can issue bonds to buy private utilities. Through its membership, the county also can get a consultant's advice on obtaining utility grants, County Administrator Richard Wesch said.
Over the long run, the county could use the utility authority to buy some of the 191 private water and sewer systems that wish to sell. As the county acquires those systems, it will gain new water and sewer customers who can help pay for the other utility projects, Wesch said.
Sheriff Jeff Dawsy has told commissioners he needs $4.5-million in upgrades to his communications system to eliminate the "dead spots" in the county where emergency personnel cannot reach dispatch by radio. The proposal includes building a new radio tower in Lecanto, renting space on four other towers, buying transmitters and receivers for those towers and buying other radio equipment.
Dawsy also says he has outgrown his Inverness headquarters and his emergency operations/911 center in Lecanto. He believes a new $9.5-million facility in Lecanto could provide enough space for all of his needs.
Phasing the radio upgrades over several years: Commissioner Roger Batchelor said it would be easier to free up $1-million for the radio upgrades in each of the next few budget years, as opposed to finding the entire $4.5-million in next year's budget. "I'm not at all sold on the fact that we need to do it all at one time," Batchelor said.
But Dawsy said the upgrades cannot wait another year. "Right now you have law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel and school buses ... (that) are all in danger," Dawsy said. "If we fail to act appropriately, and one of our people gets hurt, I think it can be a (liability) situation. It's time to bite the bullet and do the project."
Using Florida Power's towers: At the suggestion of Commissioner Gary Bartell, county staff will meet with Florida Power officials Monday to discuss locating the sheriff's transmitters and receivers on the large lattice towers that carry the high-voltage power lines. Florida Power's parent company, Progress Energy, has a program for leasing space on its towers for communications equipment, but Bartell is hoping the county can get a break on the deal.
"I told Florida Power that it would be excellent PR for them to work with Citrus County and maybe even donate the space," Bartell said.
Increasing the law enforcement impact fee: Commissioners Vicki Phillips and Josh Wooten believe the county erred in not increasing the 1988 law enforcement impact fee when it upped other fees in January. The other commissioners chose not to raise the rate then because they wanted to gather a year's worth of 911 data before deciding on a justifiable increase.
"As it is, we've left it at a 12-year-old number, and I think that's been an area where the board has been irresponsible," Phillips said.
All of the money raised from the law enforcement impact fee, about $50,000 a year, goes toward paying the $694,000 annual debt service on the Lecanto jail. Wooten has suggested refinancing the remaining 10 years on the jail debt to take advantage of today's lower interest rates and include the cost of the sheriff's projects
The extra money raised by an increased law enforcement impact fee could help pay for those projects, he said.
Expanding current buildings: The sheriff's headquarters in Inverness was built with a foundation that could support a third story, and there is space to expand the 911 center in Lecanto, Commissioner Roger Batchelor said. "I think we need to look at those options. I think they would prove to be by far less expensive (than a new $9.5-million facility)," Batchelor said.
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