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From a Swiftmud job to a slower paced post

Six years ago, he oversaw 550 employees and a $65-million budget as executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Two weeks ago, Gary Kuhl started work as Citrus County public works director with a budget of $12-million and 115 employees.

From 1984 to 1988, Kuhl had managed the water district, known as Swiftmud, a giant bureaucracy that controls water quality and quantity in 16 counties. He was paid $78,000.

In his new job, Kuhl will oversee the resurfacing of county roads, repairing of county vehicles and buildings, and developing of its two airports. He'll make $49,500.

Citrus County hasn't seen such a high-octane administrator before in a job that's ordinarily a routine, if necessary, staple of local government.

County Administrator Tony Shoemaker explained why he chose as director a man who has no experience in road maintenance over three other finalists who did. They included public-works administrators from Lakeland and Fort Myers as well as Citrus County's current director of road maintenance, Kenneth Saunders.

Shoemaker said Saunders was a strong candidate, but Kuhl's overall management experience put him ahead of the others.

Despite his background, he doesn't expect to plunge into water management in Citrus County _ at least, unless asked.

In recent weeks, the county commissioners have talked about taking a more active role in rescuing Lake Tsala Apopka from the ill effects of a drought and sinkholes. They and Shoemaker are to appear today before the governing board of Swiftmud in Brooksville.

Kuhl won't be there. "I don't want people to think I'm getting out of my area of responsibility," he said.

He'll offer county officials tips on how Swiftmud works. But his experience won't provide any special access to Swiftmud decision-makers, he said. "I would be disappointed if they did," he said; the agency should be impartial.

Another issue in his appointment was that his wife, Elicia, is Shoemaker's secretary. Shoemaker and Kuhl were asked to comment on what effect if any that had on Kuhl getting the job.

The county has a policy on nepotism that applies to couples: An employee cannot supervise a spouse. Both Kuhls report to Shoemaker, so the policy does not apply.

"If the county could not select anyone who was related to an existing employee, we'd probably lose half the qualified people for county positions," Shoemaker said. "We're a small county."

The County Commission confirmed Shoemaker's appointment of Kuhl in late January without comment. "I can't see anything but a benefit from having Mr. Kuhl," Commissioner Gary Bartell said recently.

Kuhl, 48, said he's happy, content and eager. He promises he won't be bored. "Believe me, I've got plenty of work to do," he said, pointing toward a stack of files. "I think I can learn and grow in this job."

During an interview this week, Kuhl explained his reasons for taking the position. He has family ties in Citrus County. He wants to serve people. Say someone calls him to complain about a pothole; he wants to quickly respond.

That doesn't exactly fit the image of the big, bad Swiftmud, regarded in some quarters as overbearing and dictatorial. During the 10 years he spent at Swiftmud, Kuhl acknowledges he often had to tell people no.

Now he wants to say yes more often. His top priorities include speeding up the sluggish pace at which the county has been resurfacing its 1,200 miles of roads _ a rate of just 25 miles a year.

To do that, Kuhl and Shoemaker agreed Kuhl will rely on the specific experience of Saunders and other division directors within the department.

"After 10 years at Swiftmud, I think I understand technical things enough to know when something is logical," he said. "I'll rely on Ken (Saunders) and the other people with the specific technical background to say, "Here are three alternatives and here's why I think we should do this one.'

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After two weeks on the job, he said, he's pleased with his staff. "This feels real comfortable."

In 1988, Kuhl took a small pay cut to leave Swiftmud for private industry. Between then and last fall, he worked for two engineering consulting firms with Citrus County offices, King Engineering Associates Inc. of Clearwater and Henigar & Ray Inc. of Crystal River. He worked briefly as an independent consultant last fall.

"I guess I'm a person who every few years needs a new challenge," he said.

Swiftmud's fast pace, with 70-hour weeks and frequent traveling to Tallahassee, had worn on him.

But he found the business world didn't suit him. He grew to dislike the pressures of business competition and solicitation of new business. He missed how his work at Swiftmud had allowed him to focus more exclusively on setting goals, solving problems and building teamwork.

He isn't predicting exactly how long he'll stay as public-works director, but says it will be "for several years at least."

Kuhl said that when he worked for the private consultants, he tried to avoid hanging around the county courthouse; he didn't want to appear to be lobbying for county favors through his wife.

"When I was interviewed for the job," he said, "I said if I'm not the best qualified person for the job, I don't want it."

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