BROOKSVILLE — Earlier this year, Hernando County officials turned over purchasing duties to the Clerk of Circuit Court's Office as officials reshuffled county functions and personnel.
Now, faced with questions about how Clerk Karen Nicolai has gone about handling those duties, at least one commissioner wants the county to take back those important functions.
Her fellow commissioners did not completely back Rose Rocco's suggestion, but they did agree that the board needs more information before deciding how to deal with purchasing.
The discussion was prompted by the decision several weeks ago by Nicolai to hire Lisa Hammond to a $105,000 salary into a newly created position of strategic planning director.
Hammond has been working as a purchasing and contracts consultant for Nicolai for the last several months, a job that ties her to the controversial county jail and Hernando Beach Channel dredging projects.
The commissioners' discussion Tuesday afternoon brought Nicolai over from her nearby office to defend her actions. She suggested that if the county wanted purchasing back, maybe it should also take back information technology, which was consolidated under Nicolai last year.
Jim Gantt, who lost his job in May as purchasing and contracts director when the county eliminated the position, told the commissioners there are legal concerns about how the county has handled procurement and contracts since he left.
As the exchanges grew more heated, Commissioner Jeff Stabins quipped that when the issue returns for further discussion and a vote that, "selling tickets for that meeting might help us with our budget woes.''
Gantt, who noted that he was paid $92,000 with 17 years of experience, said he had tried to stay out of the politics since he lost his job, but, "I can't let this pass.''
He argued that Hammond "doesn't even meet basic qualifications as a buyer. … This is political cronyism at its best.''
Gantt said county ordinance requires that the person in charge of purchasing be the chief procurement officer, but the ordinance has not been followed or changed and "you don't have anyone actually in charge of purchasing.'' Calling the way the purchasing system was changed "fraud'' he asked, "Tell me why I shouldn't sue the heck out of this county?''
Rocco said she believes the county should be in control of purchasing. Even if the county's current purchasing agent needed help, an assistant could be hired for less than the $60,000 the county is paying Nicolai toward Hammond's salary.
"It's our fiduciary responsibility to have purview over our purchasing,'' she said.
The county signed an interlocal agreement to have Nicolai work with county staffers to provide a more efficient purchasing department. To dissolve that agreement, both sides would have to be in favor of doing so; or one side could do so after 60 days' notice.
Commissioner Dave Russell said he wanted more information from Nicolai about how the system is working now.
Rocco said she agreed that the right credentials are crucial and that, whatever happens in purchasing, "We are ultimately responsible.''
The shuffling is part of county administrator David Hamilton's plan to shrink county government. Hamilton was not at the meeting, due to vacation. Commission Chairman John Druzbick said the board should be sure Hamilton is present when they next discuss the issue.
"Everyone needs to take a deep breath and get the facts,'' he said.
In other business:
• Commissioners agreed to consider increasing the $10 annual fee at the Little Rock Cannery to $25. The request for the fee increase comes from the users of the cannery who want to see it survive. The facility has been on the budget chopping block for two years in a row and has been saved by an anonymous donor. The issue will get a formal vote at an upcoming commission meeting.
• Commissioners took two steps to improve the Hernando County Airport. They approved a bid from Scondeller Construction Inc. for $803,275 for runway and taxiway rehabilitation work and approved a task order to LPA Group for $24,833 to provide construction services.
The commission also approved a supplemental joint participation agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation for improvements to the infrastructure of the Corporate AirPark for a total of $840,001 from the DOT with the airport match totalling $210,000.
• The board agreed to apply for a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The grant, which could total $250,000, would allow the county to conduct a needs assessment, gather information and further plan much discussed infrastructure improvements in south Brooksville.
If awarded, the county would have to spend $12,500 in matching money. The grant could also be the foot in the door for the county to be considered for an implementation grant in the future. Those grants can be for as much as $31 million, Jean Rags, community development director, told commissioners.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.