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Four retiring Hernando constitutional officers reflect on long careers

Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, left, Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes and Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek talked recently about the jobs they are leaving, the changes they have seen in the county over the years and what might lie ahead.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times

Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, left, Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, Tax Collector Juanita Sikes and Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek talked recently about the jobs they are leaving, the changes they have seen in the county over the years and what might lie ahead.

BROOKSVILLE

Recent visitors to the Hernando County Government Center might have noticed the loud ticking of retirement clocks. That's because four of Hernando County's five elected constitutional officers are leaving office. When they leave they will take with them a total of more than 100 years of experience as county employees. As their final days in office approached, they recently agreed to sit as a group with the Tampa Bay Times to reflect on their careers.

They talked about how technology has changed their jobs, the changes in the community, their observations of Hernando County's political landscape, and Paris.

Well, at least retiring Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai, who left office on New Year's Eve, talked about Paris. That's where she will spend seven weeks, in a small apartment right around the corner from the Louvre with a view like a postcard. She's so excited, she's already bought a sparkly Paris T-shirt.

The other three have plans for their retirements, which begin Monday, that they think are pretty good, too.

Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek has three grandchildren and a fourth on the way and they will play a big role in his retirement. So will his travel plans to national parks such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

Tax Collector Juanita Sikes wants to travel too. She may take her dream cruise to Alaska. She'll definitely spend more time with her three grandchildren.

Retiring Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams would love to do a cruise, but it's family time with her mother and her husband that will largely consume her time after she leaves office. She joked that her husband, Andrew, might need retraining to spend full days with her.

"We're all worried about divorce,'' Nicolai quipped.

• • •

Ask Sikes — elected to her current job in 2000 — about her time in public service and she doesn't hesitate. "I've been there forever,'' she said.

She was hired by the Clerk of the Circuit Court in 1970 and soon left, thinking she never wanted to work in government again. But in 1972, she got a call from Tax Collector Irene Kilpatrick, who needed Sikes' help with a bookkeeping machine that Sikes had run for the clerk.

She agreed to help out and stayed for 40 years.

Only a year after Sikes began her work at the tax collector's office, a 17-year-old high school student named Annie B. Drake started a part-time job with the office of Supervisor of Elections Neil T. Kinnear Jr.

Later to marry and change her name to Williams, she couldn't know at the time she would someday be the supervisor or imagine the county of the future. Its current population is more than 173,000. In 1973, there were about 25,000 residents.

"And no Republicans,'' noted Nicolai.

"We were a Democratic county at that time,'' Williams said. "I've seen a lot of change.''

In 1978, Williams returned to the office, working her way up through the ranks. She successfully ran for election in 2000, becoming the first African-American woman to hold elected office in Hernando County.

Nicolai started her public life working as finance director in 1976. In 1988, the governor appointed her as clerk and she successfully ran for the position later that year. She was re-elected for five consecutive terms without opposition.

Mazourek started his political life serving on the Brooksville City Council for 16 years, beginning in 1976. He ran successfully for property appraiser for the first time in 1996. He has served in that position ever since.

• • •

A unified countywide addressing system is one of Mazourek's proudest achievements. So is the county's centralized geographic information system, which is a detailed electronic mapping program which his office directs for the rest of the county government departments.

Since its establishment in 2007, the investigative unit, which targets homestead fraud, has returned $1.3 million in value to the tax rolls, Mazourek said.

Tough budget times also meant that Mazourek had to cut costs. Since 2005, he has lost 11 positions from a department that now has 38 employees.

Sikes is the rare county official who can say she added staff during her time in office, but that is mostly because of the state mandate that tax collectors take over drivers licensing, which resulted in the creation of a satellite office at the Florida Highway Patrol office on U.S. 98.

She bragged that her staff pulled off that project and saved $50,000 off the budget at the same time. Hiring a private collection company to chase unpaid tangible tax bills has also saved her office $2.5 million, she said.

Nicolai cited the establishment of teen court, drug court, domestic violence court and mental health court as some of the projects that she is the most proud of from her time as the clerk.

Among the many audits produced by her office was the study that became the driving force behind the consolidation of the Hernando and Spring Hill fire rescues.

Williams is proud of having helped pick the current voting system, the one that replaced the infamous punch cards which brought the state so much ridicule after the 2000 presidential election.

The technology has also advanced office operations. Williams remembered going into the basement of the old courthouse to use a machine called the Addressograph to keep the voter rolls on metal plates similar to dog tags.

"We've come a long ways," Williams said. "Thank God.''

• • •

Technology moved the constitutional offices to new levels. One of the main things that held them back was the Florida Legislature.

Each officer cited numerous changes that kept them scrambling to change forms, change procedures, change computer programs and keep re-educating the public.

And the Legislature did more than cause administrative headaches, said Mazourek, who expressed frustration over the state's failure to adequately deal with sinkhole claims that have stripped $300 million in taxable value from the county's tax rolls.

Some of their offices' funding issues can also be traced to politics. Legislators enact laws that change the way local governments operate, but also make these governments pay for them so the state doesn't have to.

So lawmakers get to say they're "taking care of business," Mazourek said, while "bragging about what a great job they have done saving money."

State legislators aren't the only elected officials the constitutional officers are concerned about.

Sikes was adamant in her opposition to any discussion of charter government by the Hernando County Commission. This would allow Hernando to diverge from the way county governments are organized by the Florida Constitution, which defines the duties of all their offices. It also helps spread local political power, Mazourek said.

"Ask yourself a question: Do you want the County Commission to call the shots?''

• • •

First Mazourek and, later, Sikes and Nicolai, stood before the County Commission in recent years urging them to increase the millage rate to compensate for the loss of revenue due to falling property values.

While each of the three said they had faith their successors would do a fine job in the office, they also said they would have to be more seasoned before standing up to the commissioners like that.

It is a big change to go from being an employee to being the person who makes the decisions and there will be a transition time until the new officers gain their footing, Sikes noted.

Her replacement is her chief deputy, Sally Daniel, who has worked in the office for more than 28 years.

Don Barbee will be the new clerk and has worked as Nicolai's director of court services and general counsel since April 2011.

Williams is in a different situation. Elizabeth Townsend, who served as Williams' operations director, was defeated in the election by Shirley Anderson. Williams said Anderson faces a steep learning curve.

"I have someone coming in who has never worked an election,'' Williams said. "She's going to have a real challenge on her hands to learn the elections laws that are ever changing.''

Mazourek, whose chief deputy, John Emerson, assumes the job Monday, said he believes commissioners will have two or three more years of struggle because property values are just now showing some signs of improving. "It's going to be a tight rope situation for the County Commission budget wise,'' he said.

Employees have been asked to add duties and have received no raises for several years and lost 3 percent when they had to start paying for a portion of their retirement costs.

"There's a constant turmoil. It seems like they are putting out fires all the time and not being able to concentrate on moving ahead,'' Mazourek said.

The cuts are also changing the face of what once was a well-maintained and well-manicured collection of county properties from the Government Center to county parks, Mazourek said. That is working against the county's efforts to draw residents and businesses to Hernando.

Despite deep-seated feelings about the commission's actions in recent years, all the constitutional officers said they likely won't be speaking from the microphone at the resident comment section of commission meetings once they're retired — unless charter government is proposed.

Sikes would be there for that, she said, "and I could probably recruit three others to come back.''

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

Four retiring Hernando constitutional officers reflect on long careers 01/01/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 7:52pm]

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