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The county's 2011 wish list

For many, the new year is a time for resolutions. In the case of government leaders, it's a time to set goals for the coming year.

The Times this week asked County Administrator David Hamilton, schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt and Brooksville City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha to outline their priorities for 2011.

Not unexpectedly, the overriding focus is much the same as it's been for the past few years: stretching a shrinking supply of dollars.

After several years of declining property values and tax revenue — the result of the real estate bust and a general decline in the national economy — it's all about doing more with less. And in some cases doing less with less.

At the same time, there is another, longer-term focus that has the attention of both county and city leaders: finding ways to bring more jobs to Hernando, a county that over the past couple of years has had one of the highest unemployment rates in Florida.

The challenges are many.

David Hamilton

When County Administrator David Hamilton set his 2011 goals recently, he focused on the important tasks of getting leaner and getting several county work projects finished.

With the revenue shortfall continuing into the new year, reducing costs is tantamount because the reserves have been drained.

"Deficit spending must end,'' Hamilton said. "And it's no longer just in the general fund.''

Goal No. 1 is to streamline county facilities.

"Our office is working on developing a broader strategy than we've taken in the past to where we do what we do,'' he said.

That starts with sorting out how to convert as much space as is needed in the county government center in downtown Brooksville for judicial use. The ongoing retrofitting and renovation of the Hernando County Jail is also part of the plan, and the next list of priority projects will come to the County Commission this month.

Then the remaining departments displaced from the government center will be fit into other existing space the county owns.

The second goal is to enhance economic development efforts by looking at something more creative. Hamilton said he is interested in looking throughout the Caribbean basin to find companies that might be interested in moving to Hernando County.

Goal three is to move forward with the planned infrastructure projects in south Brooksville. With the county's $750,000 grant, work can begin on sewer and water system improvements. The county is also seeking a planning grant that could open the way for more funding for the community and is monitoring Brooksville's efforts to secure a grant as well.

Hamilton's fourth goal for 2011 is to "sort out the mess'' created by county officials who used salary studies to create a pay system for county employees that he says is neither uniform nor logical.

"As sensitive and delicate as this subject is, it needs to be sorted out,'' Hamilton said.

The goal needs to be to reduce expenditures, he said.

Goal five is team building among the eight individuals who comprise the county's leadership team. The reorganization at the top is done, and now the team needs to work together to find long-term strategies to address the county's needs, Hamilton said.

The sixth goal is a familiar one: finish the Hernando Beach channel dredging project.

On that topic, Hamilton said, "enough said.''

Bryan Blavatt

Ask Hernando schools superintendent Bryan Blavatt about his goals for the new year and he will remind you that longtime school administrators tend to view the calendar a bit differently.

"I kind of follow the school year because I've been doing this for so long," Blavatt said. "I almost do my New Year's resolutions in August when we start school,"

But as the calendar flips to 2011, there is a long list of issues to tackle.

The main goal is to build on the work that helped return the district to its A status in the state's A-Plus accountability system, which is based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores, Blavatt said.

"Obviously the overriding thing we're going to be looking at is continuing to show more and more success in student performance," he said. "Not only to be an A district, but have all of our schools do well. The concern is how do we continue to move up and perform better when we're very limited in resources from the state."

Blavatt has stressed the need to be "proactive, not reactive" and said he will focus this year on creating a five-year plan that sets goals for nearly every department in the district and outlines strategies to meet those goals in the face of tight budgets.

One important goal, Blavatt said: Make sure the new K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee opens on time and on budget. The elementary portion of the school will be up and running in the fall, with the middle school section opening as early as fall 2012. The new school is prompting shifts in elementary and middle school attendance boundaries, and Blavatt said the district hopes to make that always contentious process as smooth as possible.

The district met the stricter class size requirements that took effect in October, mainly by hiring long-term substitutes and paying supplements to teachers who took on an additional class. Since the statewide referendum to ease those caps failed in November, the district will have to focus this year on more permanent solutions. That almost certainly will mean hiring more full-time teachers.

District and teacher union officials will work to fine-tune a state-mandated system that bases a portion of teacher pay on student performance. And talks have started on a differential pay system that will use the district's $2.2 million from the federal Race to the Top grant to offer more money to teachers who, for example, take on extra duties or work in high-poverty or low-performing schools.

Blavatt, whose one-year anniversary is April 1, said he's ready to talk to the School Board this year about how to tie his own pay to student performance.

"It's something I believe in," he said.

Jennene Norman-Vacha

Falling property values, a skin-tight municipal budget, plus a call by residents to keep taxes low. Those are the challenges that confront Brooksville City Manager Jennene Norman-Vacha as she looks toward 2011.

In the mix is also a desire to see that the city moves forward with key projects that Norman-Vacha hopes will lead to business growth and new jobs in the new year and beyond.

"Critical for Brooksville will be a meaningful business plan or road map for the city for 2011 and into the next five years," Norman-Vacha said. "We need to focus on what will attract potential employers and keep the existing ones we have."

Paramount to that effort, Norman-Vacha said, is to keep moving forward with ideas that make the city more attractive to residents.

One of those projects has been the Good Neighbor Trail, a mile-long ribbon of asphalt that organizers plan to link up to the Withlacoochee State Trail, 9 miles to the east of the city. Norman-Vacha is looking to 2011 as a time to move forward with the county and the Florida Department of Transportation in completing the trail.

"We've made good progress this past year," Norman-Vacha said. "If the money is available, I'd like to see the ball moved forward."

In addition to the trail, Norman-Vacha wants to continue pursuing state and federal grants to pay for a city revitalization project that was recommended last year in a study by the Community Outreach Partnership Program, part of the University of Florida's Department of Urban and Regional Planning. Such improvements will serve the municipality's needs well into the future, she said.

"We can't forget about our long-term goals," Norman-Vacha said. "Once the economy improves, we need to be ready to take advantage of opportunities that will bring us good jobs and spur business growth."

On tap early in the year will be several workshops with the City Council and other staffers that will address some of those plans. However, Norman-Vacha said that city officials will also have to be cognizant that they probably can't do everything they'd like because of the tight budget. And the crunch could even be greater as the council considers its 2011-12 spending plan, she said.

"We're like every other governmental entity in that we have to deal with the here and now," Norman-Vacha said. "We still have to provide services, and we have to do it with less money than before. We don't really have any other choice."

The county's 2011 wish list 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 5:44pm]
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