2010 in review | County

Budget, jail, dredge worries had Hernando officials hopping

BROOKSVILLE — When Hernando County officials look back to what kept them hopping in 2010, the on-going budget crunch, the transition of the county jail to new management and the continuing drama over the Hernando Beach Channel dredging project will be their top headaches.

Much of county business has direct or indirect connections to those major issues. And each promises to spill into the next year.

The year started on a hopeful note for those who for more than a decade have awaited the completion of dredging work to widen, deepen, straighten and lengthen the Hernando Beach Channel. But just weeks into the new year, state and local officials learned that the work started in late 2009 had hit a hitch.

The system in place to separate the dredged spoils into clear water and solid sediment wasn't working. Water returned to the nearby canal was too cloudy and state environmental regulators shut down the work.

That began a battle between contractor Orion Dredging Services and the county's consulting engineer, Halcrow Inc., with Orion saying Halcrow didn't provide a good dewatering plan and Halcrow blaming Orion for botching the dredging.

Ultimately, they helped the county design a new plan using a chemical coagulant and settling ponds to meet the state's water clarity requirements and secure a permit for that new plan. But the new plan was expensive and when Orion sought to boost the original $5 million price by $7.8 million, the county refused and declared Orion in breach of its contract. Orion's bonding company refused to pay and Orion has sued the county.

Officials scrambled to find a way to keep the dredge alive, talking to other companies interested in performing the work. With a June completion deadline looming and the county in danger of losing $6 million in state funds, County Administrator David Hamilton recommended that Tampa-based BCPeabody take over the project.

The County Commission balked when a history of problems turned up with two of the company's subcontractors. But then, with help from Commissioner Dave Russell, the county got a six-month extension allowing for a full bidding process to find a firm that could do the work within the budget and current permit.

The bid opening on that project is set for early January.

• • •

The dredge project also led to a series of changes in the county's Department of Public Works. County Engineer Charles Mixson, who had been overseeing the project for years, was fired by Hamilton for a series of missteps with the dredge being the final straw.

The assistant engineer and project manager on the dredge, Gregg Sutton, quit just days later.

Hamilton tapped Susan Goebel, a mechanical engineer in the utilities department, to serve as interim public works director. He also ordered an audit of the department and that audit recommended some changes in structure and strongly recommended getting a new county engineer in place.

Goebel was given the title of transportation services director as Hamilton continues to realign staff to make it match the smaller staff size brought about by budget cuts. With the departure of the only remaining civil engineer on the staff several months ago, the county began using a contract firm for engineering services and recently began a second application process to find a new engineer.

• • •

In March, Sheriff Richard Nugent announced he could do a better, cheaper job of overseeing the county jail than Corrections Corporation of America, which had operated the jail for 22 years.

Nugent stunned the County Commission with a slide show of leaking ceilings, rotten doors and flooded areas and said he wasn't interested in running a run-down facility. But within days, CCA gave notice to the commissioners that it would end its relationship with the county at the end of August.

Nugent took over the jail then but the transition was rocky. County officials wrangled with CCA over equipment while the county sought a report detailing what CCA owed for deferring maintenance on the facility. Eventually, the county withheld its final payments to CCA, landing the county in a lawsuit that's still pending.

Purchasing director Jim Gantt was suspended for not monitoring the CCA contract closely enough and allowing the jail to get in such a bad state of disrepair. While he was on suspension, Hamilton eliminated his position.

Instead, Hamilton recommended that the County Commission approve an agreement to temporarily hand over some of the responsibility for purchasing and contracts to Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai. Nicolai tapped consultant Lisa Hammond to do that work, leading to another controversy.

Paid $55 per hour, Hammond was in the middle of the dredge project and the jail transition when Nicolai offered her a $105,000 position. Public outcry over the salary and some questionable claims on her resume drew Hammond into the middle of the fray. Nicolai then withdrew the offer. The County Commission decided earlier this month to end the agreement with Nicolai in the first quarter of 2011 and hire a chief procurement officer.

• • •

With staff shrinking through continued attrition, all county departments have felt the strain of doing more with less. As revenues have shrunk again, budget-cutting was the focus of much of the attention of county officials throughout 2010. If not for a second year of anonymous donation, the Little Rock Cannery would likely have been eliminated from the budget.

Fees for the use of parks, boat ramps and athletic facilities were enacted. With a swift public outcry about the impacts on athletics, the field fees have been held in abeyance until new proposals can be considered early in 2011. The commission also will consider reversing an earlier decision to not enforce other park fees.

• • •

The commissioners approved a proposed mixed-use project on old mining lands north of Brooksville known as the Quarry Preserve, which envisioned a 4,282-acre project with 5,800 homes of various types, a town center, commercial areas and golf courses.

State growth management experts, however, objected to the project saying the developers hadn't properly shown the need for it and saying it would create urban sprawl. The county is set to argue its case in an administrative hearing in April.

• • •

Another important county project might also land officials before an administrative law judge, the cleanup of the contamination at the old Department of Public Works fleet compound in south Brooksville. While it was good news to the county to finally have state officials approve a cleanup plan, some in the community didn't share that sentiment.

The new president of the NAACP, Paul Douglas, has said the organization will challenge the cleanup plan because it doesn't go far enough to protect the health of nearby residents.

Douglas also has been involved in the Community Initiatives Team for south Brooksville, which links the residents with county and city officials. The county has received a grant to move forward with needed infrastructure improvements in the neighborhood, which had been overlooked for years.

• • •

The County Commission opted to not move forward with a previous plan to build a free-standing judicial center to help ease the pressure of not having enough courtrooms and other judicial space.

Instead, Hamilton is working on a plan to convert the government center into a courthouse and move other non-judicial offices to existing space in other county buildings.

• • •

Voters in November rejected a plan to create an automated garbage collection service that would have made curbside recycling more widespread. The recycling program itself was privatized in April. The county also opened up the new cell of the county landfill.

Efforts to draw in and retain businesses and improve the sluggish economic conditions continued in 2010. The County Commission agreed to keep the reduced impact fees for another year.

Discussions were ongoing on how to make permitting a more customer-friendly process. Commissioners also accepted a new economic development plan.

Another plan written up by county and emergency management officials in 2010 did not have to be put in place. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, emergency planners had to write an oil spill plan, something they hadn't done before. But no oil ever reached Hernando County's coastline.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

Budget, jail, dredge worries had Hernando officials hopping 12/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 9:58pm]

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