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Recreation board faces the voters

Rarely do voters get a chance to wipe out an entire governmental board and the tax that goes with it, but that is what northeast Hernando residents will have the chance to do Nov. 6. The fate of the Istachatta-Nobleton Recreation District board rests with the 919 registered voters in Precinct 1. County commissioners put a referendum to abolish the five-member board on the ballot after some 100 area residents signed a petition to eliminate it.

Some people say the petition drive started because the board members squabble too much amongst themselves and withthe rest of the community. Others say it started because of the board's fierce opposition to the Florida Kiwanis Foundation's plan to build an $8-million to $10-million youth camp/conference center in the community.

But board Chairman Tony Lagone and Vice Chairman Dennis Ausley said the petition has its roots in a wedding several years ago.

Former board member Harry Stewart wanted to relocate his grandson's wedding to the community center that is run by the board. But the hall already was booked. When a board member refused to allow the wedding, Lagone and Ausley said, Stewart was furious.

That is what prompted his petition drive to eliminate the board, they contend.

"There is nothing to that whatsoever," said Stewart, who joined the board in 1982. He said the board should be eliminated because it does nothing but collect taxes each year.

"They want to sit and argue, argue, argue," Stewart said. The board's primary responsibility is to care for the community center on County Road 439.

Stewart said that along with abolishing the board and the Istachatta-Nobleton recreation tax of 25 cents per $1,000 of property value, he wants to see control of the center given to the county.

Stewart's push comes during the most controversial year in the board's 14-year history. Board members have spent nearly a year _ and nearly $6,500 in fees to attorney Glen Greenfelder _ to prevent the Kiwanis Foundation from building its project on county park land.

The board had control over the 375-acre park along Lake Lindsey Road, but the County Commission took it away from the board earlier this year.

Even though the board has lost some of its power, it still is worth keeping, said Ausley, who was appointed to the board earlier this year. The recreation board is the community's only link to the county seat in Brooksville, he said.

Without the recreation board, Ausley said, "the county would lose realization of what really happens out here because we're so far on the east side."

Ray Clark is another former board member who is working to eliminate the district. "First, (board members) don't have the experience to manage, and second, they don't listen to anybody that does. That's it just about in a nutshell," he said.

The campaign has been particularly spirited, especially for a tranquil-looking rural community.

One unsigned mailing distributed to some area voters said they can keep their taxes down by allowing the board to remain. If the board is not abolished, the flier says, residents would be immune from the county's proposed 50-cents-per-$1,000 park tax that will be on the same ballot.

That's not necessarily true, County Attorney Bruce Snow said. It would be up to the County Commission to decide if residents would have to pay both taxes, he said.

But it would be legal to charge both because they go for different purposes, Snow said. The Istachatta-Nobleton tax, which collects about $5,000 a year, goes to operate the community center, while the new countywide tax would go toward expanding the county's parks and recreation program.

Should the Istachatta-Nobleton board be abolished, control of the community center will fall to the county, Community Services Manager Pat Fagan said.

Clark said the furor is reinforcing the incorrect stereotype that many Hernando residents have that the Istachatta-Nobleton area is populated only by backwoods people who spend all their time feuding.

"I lived in Spring Hill for two years," the Miami native said. "And I saw just as much bickering out there."