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Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer

Barbara Behrendt

Barbara Behrendt is based in Brooksville and covers Hernando County government, growth, development and the environment for the Tampa Bay Times. She joined the Times in 1983. Born in Chicago, she grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and earned her degree from the Ohio State University.

Phone: (352) 848-1434

Email: [email protected]

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  1. Records show Hernando Beach fire chiefs defrauded taxpayers of thousands

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The three former chiefs of the defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, arrested in September, are collectively accused of defrauding the taxpayers of Hernando Beach, Aripeka and Forest Glenn of tens of thousands of dollars.

    The department's annual revenue was just under $250,000.

    David Freda is accused of engaging in fraud to obtain property valued at $123,070.14. For Travis Morris, the figure is $57,780.35, and for David Murdock, $44,706.49. Some of that fraud overlaps among the chiefs, according to sheriff's investigators....

    David Murdock, a former Hernando Beach fire chief, has been charged with organized fraud. He has been placed on administrative leave by the Brooksville Fire Department, where he is a captain.
  2. Brooksville council begins study of law enforcement options

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The City Council has jumped headlong into a discussion about the future of the Brooksville Police Department — specifically, whether to maintain it as is or change the way law enforcement services are provided in an effort to relieve the city's budget woes.

    Inspired in part by a Facebook video plea by council member Natalie Kahler, residents crowded into the council chambers Monday night, many of them praising the work of the city police and urging the council to reject disbanding the department....

    Brooksville Mayor Robert Battista said the City Council has no plans to make a decision immediately.
  3. Doctors air concerns as county prepares to take over Pinebrook center

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The last few physicians still operating at Pinebrook Medical Center have appealed to county leaders to give them more time and more funding to move as the county prepares to transform the facility into a new home for county offices.

    Four doctors wrote to the commission recently, and several representatives appeared before the County Commission this week to say they needed at least a year to secure and prepare new offices. They also have expressed concern that the move will take more money than commissioners had previously approved....

    Deputy County Administrator Jeff Rogers says the county is still negotiating with doctors who need to leave Pinebrook Medical Center and will bring back a potential agreement to commissioners.
  4. Rewrite of comp plan resurfaces philosophical differences in Hernando

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The age-old conflicts typical in a developing community are coming to a head again as Hernando County officials consider the first major rewrite in 27 years of their official blueprint for development.

    For more than a year, county planning staffers have been working on a new comprehensive plan, which will be in force until 2040. Their work has been shaped by their planning expertise, intermixed with suggestions by members of the public from both ends of the political spectrum. The County Commission and the Planning and Zoning Commission each held public workshops on the proposed changes in the plan earlier this month....

    Commissioner Steve Champion says he is pleased to see fewer government mandates and more attention to property rights in proposed revisions to the county’s comprehensive plan.
  5. Brooksville reaches agreement with new city manager

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The Brooksville City Council has reached a contract agreement with Mark Kutney, and he will start Nov. 6 as the new city manager.

    The council voted unanimously Tuesday to bring Kutney on board at an annual salary of $102,500. With other contract provisions, including a car allowance and relocation payment, this year's total compensation package would cost approximately $107,000, which is $1,000 more than what the council had budgeted for the position, said Mayor Robert Battista....

    Mark Kutney
  6. Arrests bring more scrutiny, criticism of defunct Hernando Beach Fire Department

    Crime

    BROOKSVILLE — For years, there have been rumors and anonymous complaints about bad behavior by the leadership of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, ranging from improper spending to firefighters drinking alcohol and having sex in the fire station.

    Failure to follow basic protocol — including not responding to all fire calls, not having regular audits done and not having a medical director — cost the department its contract with the county earlier this year. Hernando County Fire and Rescue stepped in to take over in February....

    David Freda, former Hernando Beach fire chief and the current chief of the Brooksville Fire Department
  7. Three former chiefs arrested in investigation of Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department

    Crime

    BROOKSVILLE — Three former chiefs of the defunct Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department, including current Brooksville Chief David Freda, were arrested Friday, each was charged with one count of organized fraud.

    The charges stem from a seven-month Hernando County Sheriff's Office investigation of misappropriation of public funds.

    Freda, 31, was picked up during a traffic stop late Friday at a 7-Eleven store at County Line Road and U.S. 19. Earlier in the day, interim City Manager Lyndon Bonner, who had been made aware of the warrant out for the chief's arrest, placed Freda on unpaid administrative leave....

    Former Hernando Beach Fire Chief Travis Morris was arrested Friday on a charge of organized fraud.
  8. Brooksville offers city manager job, will begin negotiations

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — After a day of interviews and a meet-and-greet with city residents, the Brooksville City Council has offered Mark Kutney, the former town manager of Loxahatchee Groves, the job of city manager.

    Prior to what ended up a unanimous decision during a special council meeting last Friday, council members discussed a variety of issues before giving Mayor Robert Battista and a representative from the law firm representing the city the go-ahead to negotiate a contract with Kutney. The contract will come back to the council in mid October....

    The Brooksville City Council has offered Mark Kutney the job of city manager.
  9. Hernando undertakes aerial attack on mosquitoes on county's east side

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — As if flooding, no electricity and a significant interruption of normalcy were not enough of a parting gift from Hurricane Irma, Hernando County's east side has also been plagued with a huge uptick in the number of buzzing and biting mosquitoes.

    To combat that problem and try to head off any serious diseases the insects can spread, Hernando County notified the Florida Department of Agriculture, which last weekend conducted a major aerial spray of 127,000 acres east of the Suncoast Parkway. The cost will be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency....

    The county has been inundated with requests for service and complaints about the growing mosquito population since Hurricane Irma. A trap near Ridge Manor captured 26,000 of the insects late last week.
  10. Hernando approves 2017-18 county budget with higher property tax rate

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission has approved its 2017-18 spending plan with a price tag of $452.9 million and a slightly higher property tax rate.

    The general fund budget for the new fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, ended up at $119.9 million, compared to last year's $103.6 million.

    The tax rate for the general fund will be 6.8912 mills, or $6.89 in property tax per $1,000 in appraised taxable property value, a slight decrease from last year's rate. But the county also added a new half-mill tax to help pull Hernando County Fire Rescue out of financial trouble. The two millage changes combined amount to a .4 mill increase, which is 40 cents in tax per $1,000 in appraised taxable property value....

    Commissioner Steve Champion said he and Commissioner John Allocco, both elected last year, didn’t create the county fire department deficit, “but we had to fix it.’’
  11. Weeks after Irma, flooding causes lingering issues in eastern Hernando

    Hurricanes

    BROOKSVILLE — The long, hot days of late summer and early fall have taken their toll on residents without electricity along the Withlacoochee River and others who are dealing with post-Hurricane Irma flooding.

    Judy Yates, whose built-up house in Riverdale Estates isn't flooded — but who has lived without warm water for showers and the simple joy of air conditioning for two weeks — has been frustrated by the county's unwillingness to restore power to her home, even though the river level is below her electrical box....

    Floodwaters have surrounded — and gotten into — many homes along the Withlacoochee River.
  12. Hernando budget for 2017-18 includes slight increase in tax rate

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission has given tentative approval to a $452.9 million budget, funded partially by a property tax rate that is slightly higher than last year.

    County officials said the increase was needed to help stabilize the finances of Hernando County Fire Rescue.

    There was no public comment during Tuesday's hearing on the 2017-18 spending plan. The final public hearing is set for 5 p.m. Tuesday....

    Wayne Dukes’ 
plan to trim the general fund rate was approved.
  13. Work, threats continue as Hernando recovers from Irma

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE

    Hurricane Irma's fierce winds are becoming a memory, but the water the storm left behind has become a real threat on Hernando's east side.

    The Withlacoochee River has crested just shy of 18 feet at Trilby — about 6 feet above flood stage — and will remain high for several more days. Floodwaters have inundated streets, yards and homes with muddy water.

    Air boats, jon boats and other craft manned by uniformed officers and volunteers have been scouring the flooded areas to evacuate those willing to leave their homes....

    This aerial drone view shows flooding on the Withlacoochee River in the Talisman Estates area of east Hernando, south of Ridge Manor. The river is about 6 feet above flood stage, and its floodwaters are not expected to recede for days.
  14. Financially strapped Brooksville raises tax rate and fire fees

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — After conducting an intensive examination of the city's financial position over the past couple of months, the Brooksville City Council has settled on its 2017-18 budget and a tax increase and fire fee increase to help pay for it.

    The $46.7 million budget, which includes a general fund budget of $7.2 million, reflects an increase of 6.89 percent in revenue from both a property tax rate increase and rising property values. In addition, the fees to pay for the city's fire service increased from 85 cents to 97 cents per $1,000 of appraised taxable property value, plus an increase in the per-lot charge from $125 to $135....

    City Council member Joe Bernardini voted against the budget and the tax rate increase, saying it contained no employee raises and almost no capital expenses.
  15. Lacking support, lobbying ordinance gets no hearing in Hernando

    Local Government

    BROOKSVILLE — A push to publicly identify people who lobby top county officials was rejected by a majority of the Hernando County Commission this week when commissioners decided to pull a proposed lobbying ordinance from the agenda.

    The idea to create a lobbyist registry to keep track of who talks to county commissioners, department heads and other decision makers was first suggested by county Commissioner John Allocco....

    Commissioner Steve Champion said there was not a consensus to bring a lobbying ordinance forward so the item should not have been placed on the agenda.