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Brooksville council discusses closing police department, maybe city

By Barbara Behrendt
Duane Chichester, former business development coordinator for the city of Brooksville, speaks to the Brooksville City Council Monday night. BARBARA BEHRENDT | Times

BROOKSVILLE — A city council that has spent a year discussing its dire finances met Monday to talk about closing its police department, and wound up considering whether the city itself should fold.

The lengthy meeting took place in a room full of residents. A Brooksville City Council majority leaned toward contracting with Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis to take over law enforcement from the Brooksville Police Department. The move could save the city $1.7 million annually.

But those figures were disputed, and the council took no vote. They are expected to consider it during Monday’s regular council meeting.

Then on Tuesday, Hernando County commissioners approved a proposal — prepared at the council’s request — to turn Brooksville’s fire service over to Hernando County Fire Rescue on Oct. 1, disbanding its fire department. The move would save city residents $1.3 million.

Last summer, Brooksville council members learned the city had been spending more than it brought in for several years and that previous city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha had approved expenses never brought to the council. Only a small reserve, plus increased taxes and fees, kept the city in the black.

The council approved a budget in September with the understanding it would explore contracting out for law enforcement and fire services.

During Tuesday’s discussion, commission Chairman Steve Champion said he’d prefer the city disband if it gave up both police and fire services.

But the option first arose Monday night. After hearing a presentation — entitled "A city that cannot afford itself’’ — council members were torn about what to do.

Brooksville’s former business development coordinator, Duane Chichester, had asked to make that presentation. He also is involved with Hernando Progress, which represents county business interests. Chichester detailed Brooksville’s slow growth, large number of properties paying no taxes and low median household income.

He suggested the option of closing the city and turning all operations over to Hernando County.

Chichester said he spoke as a private individual who cares about the city and not a representative of any specific business interests. He told council members there were "tough choices for each and every one of you.’’

Chichester had given the presentation before to residents of Southern Hills, an upscale Brooksville community whose residents have urged the council for months to end the double taxation they perceive they are paying — to the city and the county — for public safety. About half in Monday’s audience were Southern Hills residents, and several clamored for the council to let the city die.

But council members kept their focus on gathering details from Sheriff’s Office and Brooksville police representatives. Missing from Monday’s meeting was Brooksville Police Chief George Turner. He was attending an event in North Port, where he is a finalist for police chief.

Police detective Tracey Schofield talked about how officers come into the same neighborhoods every day to keep them safe, how they give back to their community, how dedicated each is to Brooksville, and how they help create an identity for the city of 8,000.

"The issue is we cannot afford what we have,’’ said council member Robert Battista.

Closing the department would eliminate about 30 employees, but council members asked that they be absorbed into the sheriff’s operations.

"That’s what we’d negotiate in the contract,’’ said council member Joe Bernardini.

The Sheriff’s chief deputy, Colonel Mike Maurer has promised priority hiring and an expedited process to city officers seeking employment with the county, Battista said.

Kahler, who found fault with financial assertions made in the sheriff’s presentation, warned council members about people like Chichester who say that without police or fire departments, the city may as well disband.

"There comes a point when you say, what exactly are we doing here?’’ Kahler said. "That’s where this is going.’’

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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