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Sage advice from departing leaders

Collectively, they've served the public for more than 126 years including 64 years as elected constitutional officers in Hernando County. They've gone from punch card ballots and handwritten records to electronic banking, voting, tax certificate sales and GPS mapping.

But, next week, Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai leaves office followed in early January by Tax Collector Juanita Sikes, Property Appraiser Alvin Mazourek and Elections Supervisor Annie Williams. All are retiring. None have regrets. At least no regrets they cared to share with a group of Tampa Bay Times journalists when the quartet agreed to a group interview.

These are service providers, not policy makers. They are judged only if they or their staffs are considered inefficient. Otherwise, the public angst — and there is plenty of that in Hernando County — is saved for the elected commissioners and state legislators with the responsibilities for setting tax rates. Even School Board members usually get a pass from an excitable public unless attendance boundaries or start times are changed.

Though their roles are defined by the state constitution, the job duties can change each year if the Legislature starts monkeying around. Likewise, their workloads can increase if someone else decides their spending requests don't pass muster. It's an aggravating cycle: fewer dollars, fewer workers, more work. County commissioners control the purse strings for the elections and property appraising offices and for a portion of the clerk's budget. Tallahassee oversees spending in the fee-based tax collector's office.

In that regard, they sometimes have been reluctant to publicly question other elected office-holders who can extract a pound of flesh come budget time. Note the word sometimes. Nicolai is no shrinking violet and her office was responsible for the internal audits that uncovered sloppy spending practices by the county. Mazourek, meanwhile, helped short-circuit an ill-conceived tax cut from the County Commission when he pointed out the property tax rate already was at a 23-year low.

Their decades of wisdom will be missed, but should not be ignored. Here are some of the highlights from the group interview:

• Property tax issues from the Legislature? "They've been a nightmare,'' Mazourek said. "Something's been changed every year. It's become such a cumbersome system. ... They need to revise the whole system, I think.''

• "Didn't we do it right the last time?'' asked Williams as she discussed always-changing mandates.

• Commissioners have "way too much discussion on (property tax) millage and not enough on taxes,'' Nicolai said.

• Commissioners are confronting a "really rough road" ahead, Sikes said, predicting the commission will close library branches rather than seek new tax revenue.

There is universal agreement on the importance of customer service. "That's all we can offer,'' Sikes said. And they concur on the importance of their roles remaining independent of commission control. In other words, these people are not fans of changing to charter government, which has been a periodic topic of public debate in Hernando County.

"Do you want the county commissioners to run things?'' Mazourek deadpanned.

It's a well-deserved poke. Budget cutting has reduced county staff and endangered internal controls. The fiasco at Animal Services is a prime illustration.

The constitutionals have had their own hiccups. Williams gave the wrong date of the election to a School Board candidate earlier this year and Nicolai was embarrassed by the discovery her contract purchasing consultant had embellished her resume with educational credentials from a diploma mill.

But they leave with substantial legacies that were affirmed by the recent elections. The hand-picked successors to Nicolai and Sikes faced no electoral competition and Mazourek's top assistant, John Emerson, was challenged only by an opponent who did not campaign. No sweeping mandates for change there. Only Williams, who never lost an election, failed to see her presumed favored successor confirmed by voters.

Each has their own retirement plans ranging from an extended Paris vacation to simply caring for an elderly parent. But, if they get bored, they have an idea to spice things up. They can offer three minutes of advice and criticism from a public podium.

"We're all going,'' Nicolai laughed, "to come to the County Commission on Tuesdays."

Sage advice from departing leaders 12/22/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 9:00am]
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