Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Business

Citrus County shares Hernando's economic worries

Poor Citrus County.

The nuclear power plant in Crystal River is going away, taking millions in property tax revenue with it.

What's left of the tax base is too tied up in housing stock, and the value of that is still falling, partly because the county is so far from any major metropolitan area. And even if it does go up again, the yo-yo pattern of real estate values means it will eventually plunge.

Yes, I feel bad for Citrus folks as they try to survive their own miniature nuclear apocalypse.

Because now they're just like us here in Hernando.

For a long time Citrus was a puzzle to me.

Look at people as they roll up to convenience stores in Floral City and Lecanto — look at their clothes and their cars — and you wouldn't think they're any better educated or prosperous than the average Hernando County resident.

Yet Citrus County's public facilities are straight out of pre-austerity Europe: beautiful parks; one public pool run by the county, another by the city of Inverness; new, well-stocked libraries; a school district that has received an A rating from the state every year since 2004.

And U.S. Census Bureau figures taught me what I should have already known — not to judge based on looks. Both the average family income and the percentage of residents with at least a bachelor's degree are, in fact, slightly higher in Citrus than in Hernando.

That helps explain why Citrus also has better private amenities, especially when you compare downtown Brooksville to downtown Inverness, where there is seemingly plenty of demand for bars serving cocktails and craft beers, as well as an Italian bakery that transforms into a acclaimed, full-service restaurant on Friday and Saturday nights.

Yes, I had always been determined to find out what Citrus had that we didn't have, when Times staffer and longtime Homosassa resident Barb Behrendt summed it up for me in two words:

"Nuclear plant."

That was months ago. Now, Duke Energy's announcement that it will close the plant is proving how right she was.

The closure will mean the loss of 800 power company and contractor jobs — the kind of jobs that can finance cocktails and multi-course Italian meals and retain residents who demand top-flight schools and parks.

Take away the plant, figure in the continued slide in property values, and the county is left with a $14.5 million hole in its budget. Because the county has already cut more than $20 million from its general fund since 2008 — along with 106 jobs — it doesn't have a lot more room for reduction.

I know. You've heard enough of this sort of thing from your own county. You don't need to hear it from another.

So, it's enough to say there's no way Citrus can trim its way out of this fix. It will have to raise taxes or add new forms of taxes. It just plain has no choice.

County leaders are so desperate to get that message out to residents that on Thursday several of them came down to the Times office in Hernando, even though the paper hasn't covered their county for six years.

At first, hearing their desperate tale of shortfalls, of heavy dependence on housing, of scrambling to bring in industry, I thought they could learn a lot from Hernando. We've been there for a while.

But then I heard commission Chairman Joe Meek — a Republican, a builder! — talk about the need to keep up Citrus' public assets.

No county can afford to look as if it's in decline, he said. If public investment dries up, private investment will, too.

"We have a unique and special community … and we're dedicated to making sure our quality of life stays high," Meek said.

Listen to him, please. Because Citrus is just like us.

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