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Officials express concerns to legislators, ranging from flooding to classrooms

By Megan Reeves
Hernando School Board member Mark Johnson asked legislators to consider changing the law concerning busing for students who live within 2 miles of a school.

BROOKSVILLE — Community leaders gathered Monday ahead of Florida’s upcoming legislative session to present their needs to Hernando County’s state representatives.

Their requests touched on a variety of topics, including water and roadway projects, school district funding and community redevelopment, to be considered by legislators in Tallahassee when the session begins in January.

The county had two requests, the largest of which was proposed in light of the recent severe flooding in neighborhoods along the Withlacoochee River brought on by Hurricane Irma.

County utilities director Gordon Onderdonk asked legislators for $1.3 million in funding, adding that the county could contribute $700,000, to construct a bypass roadway near Cyril Drive, a residential road in Ridge Manor that saw floodwaters up to 5 feet. Most residents living on the street were forced to evacuate their homes, and those who didn’t used johnboats to get in and out of the neighborhood until flooding fully receded last week.

Onderdonk said the new road would be used primarily for flood evacuation for those who reside on the more than 240 lots that can only be accessed by use of Cyril Drive. It would also give emergency vehicles a path during future storms, he said.

During Irma, Onderdonk said, local officials were forced to create an "emergency entrance" to the neighborhood through someone’s property. The new road would also cut through an existing property, a plan the owner of the property has agreed to, he said.

Onderdonk also voiced the county’s desire for stormwater and roadway improvements on Caliente Street in Hernando Beach to clear up traffic issues for residents and visitors during the busy summer season. He asked legislators for $260,000 to add to the county’s $140,000 to pay for design plans.

School Board member Mark Johnson asked for funding for Project Seahorse, a continuation of Project STARfish, a program designed to address under-served students with mental illnesses, which was fueled by a grant last year.

He also asked that legislators support a change in courtesy busing, or the transportation of students who live near schools. Currently, Florida districts are required to bus students who live farther than 2 miles from their school, but Johnson said the rural landscape of Hernando makes walking or biking dangerous for those who live too close to catch the bus and suggested the mark be moved to 1 miles.

Johnson said the district would like to see increased funding for technology, too, as many school employees have out-of-date computers and software that impede cohesive communication across the district.

Many residents showed up at the meeting to air concerns about increased boat traffic on the Weeki Wachee River, saying the congestion puts both the quality of the natural system and the safety of those who enjoy it at risk.

Brooksville City Council member Natalie Kahler asked legislators to continue to support Community Redevelopment Agencies around the state, noting the good Brooksville’s CRA has done for the city’s downtown.

"I really do think it comes back to the CRA program," she said, noting that 23 businesses have used the grant program to upgrade their properties. "It’s not only increasing property value .?.?. but the overall look and excitement."