Hernando County won't bolster regional water authority

BROOKSVILLE — They know the day will come when thirsty Hernando County residents will have drawn so much water from the aquifer that a new source of water will be needed.

Working together with neighboring counties facing the same problem, they also know, will make finding a solution easier.

But the County Commission on Tuesday balked at a plan to strengthen the Withlacoochee Regional Water Supply Authority by giving it a permanent staff and office.

Commissioner Jeff Stabins even suggested going in the opposite direction, by re-evaluating the financial impact of being in the authority and possibly pulling out altogether.

At a time when taxpayers are demanding relief, "this is probably the only branch of government to have the audacity to ask for more,'' he said. "It really turns my stomach.''

Commissioner David Russell agreed. He said he supports regional planning but said residents have made it clear they want smaller, streamlined government. "When you are asked to grow a bureaucracy, it kind of cuts across that grain,'' he said. "It doesn't sit well with me.''

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley also agreed with Russell and Stabins, while commissioners Rose Rocco and Diane Rowden said they were focused on maintaining water resources.

"It's our most precious resource, water, and we've got to plan for the future,'' Rowden said. "When that tap runs dry, who are we going to look to?''

Rowden did question whether Hernando would have enough representation on the board into the future and Jack Sullivan, water authority executive director, explained the mixed makeup of the board. Currently the authority includes Hernando, Citrus and Sumter counties along with the city of Ocala. Marion County is about to ask to re-enter the authority.

"You can't be overwhelmed by Marion County'' because of the way the representation is set up, Sullivan told Rowden.

He also assured commissioners that he didn't see Hernando's water resources going to growing areas like the Villages, parts of which are in Marion and Sumter counties. Instead, Sullivan envisioned water for the region coming from a possible desalination plant in Crystal River and the reservoir at Lake Rousseau in northwestern Citrus County.

But Russell was concerned about the "monstrosity'' of the Villages. "They can be a potential water hog'' which could draw resources from the other regional partners, he said.

Besides, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, should be looking for new water sources, he said.

Swiftmud's David Rathke said that is not the district's mandate. The water authority, he said, needs to be the agency that plans, builds and operates a regional water utility system.

In just a few years, Hernando County won't be able to get by using the existing groundwater supply and it could find itself trying to play catchup like other urbanizing portions of Florida, Sullivan said.

County administrator David Hamilton agreed to bring back a report on how to expand the regional oversight using existing resources.

In other action:

The commission decided to hear a case in which the county's Planning and Zoning Commission rejected a permit application last week for a mobile coffee stand set up in the U.S. 19 parking lot adjacent to the Spring Hill Chili's. The permit denial effectively put the owner out of business.

Stabins and Rowden asked if something could be worked out. Planning director Ron Pianta said the county has been working with the owner but has not yet been able to find a solution where the coffee stand would meet the county's rules about restroom availability, traffic patterns and other issues.

Russell said he backed the denial by the planning board because all businesses in the county should follow the same rules. The rehearing will be April 9.

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

Hernando County won't bolster regional water authority 03/18/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:46pm]

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