BROOKSVILLE — Amid all of the gloomy financial matters the County Commission talked about this week, there were a couple bits of positive news.
One county department with a troubled history is making significant improvements, they were told. And the county also has recently won a much-needed federal grant to improve the airport.
Most of what commissioners are used to hearing about their fleet management operation is tinged with controversy. Two critical audits and the ousting of a fleet manager who was taking kickbacks created a stigma on the department.
Then this spring, an audit of all the functions of the Department of Public Works including fleet created a list of areas that needed work from the way the county replaces vehicles to the costly $85 oil changes of county vehicles.
But a memo from interim public works director Susan Goebel outlined for the board on Tuesday by Commissioner Jim Adkins told of a department turning itself around.
New efficiencies in the way staff provides service are allowing the department to repay a $130,000 loan from the general fund months before it was due in March.
Goebel credited the payback as "a result of a commitment to operational accountability and a buy-in by all fleet employees to improve performance.''
Because of restructuring and the elimination of one mechanic position, the department will be able to lower its in-house labor rate from $85 per hour to $79.16 per hour, which will save county departments approximately $61,000 annually.
"This rate is competitive to both the private and the public sector in our market area,'' Goebel wrote.
In the past, the county used just the criteria of age, mileage and current maintenance costs to determine when to replace a vehicle and the community has long criticized the county for getting rid of vehicles too soon. New criteria will now be considered, such as how much time the vehicle sits idle, its functional obsolescence, and the possibility of fixing, rather than replacing, aging vehicles.
A new vehicle procurement checklist is being developed that will provide a more detailed review of the county's vehicle purchase needs, another area where officials have faced harsh criticism.
"They want to ensure that they get the right vehicle for the right job at the lowest cost for the vehicle,'' Adkins told commissioners. "You will not be seeing the big Durangos and things for someone who's just running down the road.''
Fleet has also been working with four local auto shops in the past month for basic vehicle upkeep such as oil changes and preventative maintenance. Instead of an $85 bill, the cost has been between $25 and $30, Adkins said.
Switching those duties to the private sector would add up to about $10,000 in savings annually. County officials are talking about going out to bid on the service soon.
Other issues are also on the table for discussion and other audit suggestions are under consideration, officials said.
The report generated praise from commissioners.
"Awesome piece of work,'' said Commissioner Dave Russell. "Startling. It really is.''
Commissioner Rose Rocco said it was "a work in progress … but I think you've come a long way.''
"We've come a long way and we've got a long way to go,'' said Steve Whitaker, assistant public works director.
The commissioners also learned that the Hernando County Airport just got word that it has conditional approval for a $519,657 federal grant to repair the primary runway.
"How bad is that runway?'' Adkins asked.
Built in 1942 with military concrete, the runway is composed of large slabs. Where they join, they crack, said Don Silvernell, airport director. The work required to fix the 7,000-foot-by-150-foot runway and the connected taxiway is "very extensive'' and hasn't been done since around 1997, he explained.
Commissioners approved the grant.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.