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Aged space issue lives to be kicked around again

By GREG HAMILTON

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


Alert the folks at Guinness: Citrus County is going for a world record in dawdling.

The debate over new office space for county commissioners and their staff is now into its third decade and, thanks to a decision last week, the issue will drag into next year as well.

Yeah, yeah, Rome wasn't built in a day, either. But how long does it take to decide whether to put up an office building?

Kids who were born when this issue was first raised are now in middle school or beyond. O.J. Simpson was just an over-the-hill pro athlete back then. Princess Di was alive. George Bush, the elder, was in the White House.

And, still, the issue vexes the county's leaders.

Yes, it's important. Any time millions of taxpayer dollars are at stake, responsible public officials should want to talk it over. But the Iranian hostage negotiations didn't take this long. Whole countries have come and gone while the space-needs issue has percolated.

In the time that various groups of commissioners have argued over this issue, other local boards have effectively handled similar challenges. Central Florida Community College built a Lecanto campus; the Citrus County School Board, hardly known for harmonious leadership, has not only built several schools, it erected a new administration building. Citrus Memorial Hospital completed a huge addition. Even the Old Courthouse was restored and reopened as a museum.

What in the world is so complicated about this that it continues to baffle the five intelligent people sitting on the County Commission? They've handled flooding crises, created a limerock paving program and made tough choices on emergency medical services and a host of other politically sensitive problems. They've even built an office building and jail in Lecanto.

But whenever downtown Inverness space needs, and the related question of where the county seat should be, appears on the agenda, the commissioners turn into the Crystal River City Council and the bickering ensues. Why?

"This is exciting, finally, to get this thing nailed down."

-- Commission Chairman Brad Thorpe, Jan. 24, 1996.

* * *

At times over the past decade or so, the commissioners thought they had the problem licked. But something always came along to upend their plans. In 1996, the hot plan was to move the sheriff into a new office in Lecanto and have the commissioners move into vacated sheriff's office in Inverness.

That idea fizzled. And yet another space needs study was ordered.

The world continued to turn. Tiger Woods turned pro and began tearing up the elite golf courses. John Wayne Bobbitt lost an important part of himself and had it restored, more or less. Newt Gingrich had his 15 minutes of fame. Crystal River hired and fired a fistful of city managers.

The list goes on and on, just like this debate.

I'm not advocating a hasty decision, though how something that's been kicked around for nearly a generation can be called hasty is beyond me. But we're only talking about bricks and mortar, not a cure for cancer.

Stop any 10 people on the street and, assuming none of them are downtown Inverness business leaders, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who can name all five commissioners, let alone care where they meet. It is not the biggest issue on anyone's radar screen.

Yet, it will be with us for at least another year as the commissioners have decided to put a referendum on the 2002 ballot. The vote will be non-binding, which means the commissioners don't have to follow the people's wishes. No doubt someone on the commission will say they shouldn't decide anything because it would tie the hands of any incoming commissioners.

And the beat will go on.

"I think we're right back to where we started. We're not going to do a damn thing."

-- Commissioner Jim Fowler, May 9, 2001.

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