Monday, May 21, 2018
Opinion

Long-range planning will give Hernando County direction

Nearly six years ago, then-Hernando Administrator Gary Kuhl sought to change the way county government operated.

He wanted commissioners to develop and follow, at a minimum, a five-year strategic plan. He wanted them to keep thinking 10 to 15 years into the future. Performance measures for individual departments were to become standard procedure. Core values, stake holders, vision and mission statements joined the vernacular.

"A great deal of thought and planning is imperative if we are to handle development and growth on such a large scale. At the same time, the county must keep a close watch on the pulse of the community,'' Kuhl wrote in his Oct. 1, 2006, budget message to his bosses.

Keep in mind, this was the peak of the building boom and the tax revenue it generated. The county had just expanded the jail and built two new library branches and an emergency operations center.

Unfortunately, Kuhl didn't get to stick around to see this concept to fruition. He revealed plans to depart the government center just 10 months later, chased away by the negativity accompanying the Government Gone Wild diatribes and other antigovernment rhetoric that became the forerunner of today's tea party influence. Meanwhile, the commission's vision lasted as long as the next election.

Now comes Len Sossamon, the newest county administrator who is starting to channel Gary Kuhl. Sossamon wants the county to devise a strategic plan that looks five years and beyond.

Sure, go ahead and think it. Strategic plan conjures up images of esoteric navel gazing, unfocused public input and eventually thick reports that become great paper weights and dust collectors.

What a strategic plan should do, however, if properly devised and executed, is provide Hernando County government with specific goals and ways to measure progress. It should help guide future budget decisions as the public and the commission come to agreement on acceptable levels of service for parks and recreation, animal control, code enforcement, public safety and other areas.

Are we willing to pay for three firefighters on a truck or just two? Do you want code enforcement officers available to handle complaints on weekends? Are the parks worth a greater investment? Or veterans services?

This exercise, however, should not be construed as exclusively motivated by financial considerations. Knowing the public's spending priorities is just one of the by-products. This is about better governing; trying to become more proactive and curbing the nearly nonstop crisis management.

The November referendum on paying for mosquito spraying is a handy illustration. Had commissioners been more cognizant of the likely outcome of budget cuts to mosquito control — that an unhappy public would flood county telephones with complaints — they probably would have avoided the temporary tax swap with environmental lands and ensuing ballot questions. Ditto on the discussions about selling the county's water and sewer system or how to pay for roads while simultaneously waving impact fees in an attempt to spur building activity.

One county department that has embraced strategic planning is the agency responsible for industrial development. There, business development manager Mike McHugh unveiled an aggressive and ambitious economic plan a couple of years ago that includes specific job creation goals and strategies for how to get there including: a larger pot of money to offer for incentives; reserving private land as industrial sites; acquiring land as a campus for higher education; and doing a better job of researching the county's workforce.

That McHugh recently stubbed his toe over the renaming of the Hernando County Airport shouldn't be perceived as a strategic failure. What it illustrates is how even a solid idea like expanding the brand name recognition of the airport needs to be considered by so-called shareholders near and far.

In developing a long-range plan for county government, community buy-in is imperative. There are diverse and often divisive views expressed around the county. Just listen to the public comment at the outset of every commission meeting for verification. The challenge is to build a consensus among Realtors, business owners, commuters, environmentalists, families, retirees, land owners, renters, educators, public servants, civic associations and others. Certainly, all should share the same goal of a better government adding to a better quality of life.

Reread the sentiment from 2006. "A great deal of thought and planning is imperative.'' "Keep a close eye on the pulse of the community.''

The strategic mission hasn't changed, just the guy leading it.

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