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Candidates clash over spending

Quite often, candidates for public office promise to control government spending. The question is how.

Sparks have begun flying over that topic as candidates for two Citrus County Commission seats have made the rounds of local candidate forums and interviews.

In particular, John Russo, a Democrat running for the District 2 seat held by Republican Gary Bartell, has criticized the current commission for what he calls its failure to rein in wasteful areas of the budget.

Remember the Pentagon's infamous $600 toilet seat? Russo's stump speech includes local examples such as $50 oil changes on county vehicles and a kitchen range hood estimated at $2,000.

There is more to those stories. And on their own, they represent a small fraction of county's $89-million budget. But Russo says they are signs that fat can be found elsewhere in the budget.

Voters have been complaining about higher taxes and property assessments this year, although the county tax increase of 5.3 percent was about half the School Board's, which received far less heat.

Like Russo, the candidates in the other commission race, for the District 4 seat, have zeroed in on the county's Fleet Maintenance Division, which repairs county vehicles, as an operation that should probably be cut. It's one of the few specific areas they have mentioned. But those candidates, Jim Fowler and Lee Alexander, aren't incumbents.

Bartell, meanwhile, has defended the division's management. He suggests that Russo's criticism is a weak attempt to score points with voters.

"Let's put it this way: If I was going to pick out issues .

.

. there are issues based on facts that are better issues to work on," Bartell said in an interview.

He has told audiences that in his first term in office, he helped start the county's first-ever capital-improvement plan and voted to reduce the county's millage rate four years running.

Bartell also notes that Russo has publicly criticized him for proposing to cut $450,000 from this year's county budget for repaving of County Road 480 between U.S. 19 and County Road 491.

Bartell said traffic on that road is light at 487 vehicles a day. He argued that half that length could be repaved this year: the segment closest to U.S. 19, which runs through the developed part of Sugarmill Woods. The rest could be deferred to the following year without exposing the road bed to irreparable damage, he said.

His proposal failed when no other commissioner would second it for a vote.

Addressing an audience at the Sugarmill Woods' voters forum, Russo said the road is an important evacuation route. However, as Bartell has pointed out, it is still basically a smooth road that can bear traffic.

The District 2 seat covers Homosassa and southwest Citrus County.

The District 4 seat sought by Alexander, a Democrat, and Fowler, a Republican, covers southeastern Citrus County. The commission has five seats.

Charge for oil changes

To understand one of Russo's criticisms, it may help to have a stomach for nitty-gritty accounting procedures and a frequent-visitor account at Jiffy Lube.

The Fleet Management Division maintains 500 pickup trucks and cars used by county workers primarily in the county fire, engineering, building and utilities divisions. The Sheriff's Office has its own mechanics.

Russo has told audiences at candidates forums that the division charges other county agencies between $30 and $50 for an oil change. In an interview, he based that on a sampling of county invoices. Fees charged by local service stations can run under $15.

Bartell responds that the actual cost for an oil change is more like $25, which he says is reasonable because it includes a safety and maintenance inspection.

The $25 figure was first estimated in July by county Public Works Director Gary Kuhl, who oversees Fleet Management.

Kuhl was reviewing the division's management in the wake of the forced resignation of a previous director, Phil Princiotta. Changes are in the works as a result, Kuhl said in an interview Friday.

Kuhl agreed with Russo that repair bills on vehicles brought in for oil changes might top $25 after charges are added for replacement of worn parts, such as brake pads, found by mechanics during the safety inspections.

The invoices billed to county divisions also include markups to cover administrative costs: 4 percent on the total bill and 15 percent on parts.

However, Fleet Management surveyed local service shops and found that its labor rate of between $32 and $36 an hour was the lowest, Kuhl said. The division also buys its parts well below list price. Its budget for this year is $736,000, with 18 employees.

"That is not to say there is no room for improvement," Kuhl said.

The division is awaiting the results of an audit by the county finance office that may suggest how to make more efficient use of the mechanics' time. And the division has obtained computer software to track that.

Russo responded, "It tickles me pink that they've started the process, but it's something we've been complaining about for years." Russo works for the county's Fire Prevention Office as a deputy fire marshal.

Russo said the county's hourly labor rate is still high, given that the county doesn't have to turn a profit. He wants to stop charging other county agencies for maintenance. "It's a gigantic paper chase, and it's ridiculous."

Fleet Management should simply have a budget that covers all expenses for repairing county operated-vehicles, he said.

How much could the county save by doing that and tightening ship? Russo doesn't know, but said he will have more time to answer that if elected; he would plow through the division's records.

Bartell said allocating the repair costs among the various departments is a vital tool for monitoring each department's true costs of operation.

Meanwhile, in the District 4 race, Alexander has also criticized the oil-change fees; Fowler has talked about streamlining the division in more general terms.

Expensive range hood

Russo has also criticized an item in a project to renovate the Connell Heights Volunteer Fire Department: a kitchen range hood estimated to cost $2,000. Russo said the estimate is too high, although he hasn't offered a different one.

Tad Stone, the county's public-safety director, said the cost reflects the device's heavy-duty fans and automatic fire extinguishing system.

The apparatus was required by Russo's own Fire Prevention Office, which reviews building plans for compliance with fire safety codes, and the estimate was provided by the Connell Heights department, Stone said. The actual price won't be known until the county seeks quotes later this year.

"If it's going to cost that much, I say install microwaves," Bartell said.

Russo said his point was that the county ought to employ a staff purchasing agent who could better forecast costs before the county budget is prepared.

He went on to note that bids for expansion of the Chassahowitzka fire station were recently rejected because they exceeded the amount budgeted.

Bartell said the county has had a contract services officer, Douglas Huffman, on staff for a year. But Huffman's duties have been taken up mainly with other architectural projects, mainly the commission's move into new offices in downtown Inverness.

The county last month hired a staff architect, so Huffman should now be able to concentrate on avoiding problems like the Chassahowitzka snafu, Bartell said.

Despite his focus on the nitty-gritty, Russo has made more general points about the budget. He said Bartell and the other commissioners should have pushed harder to streamline costs in the county-run Emergency Medical Services Division before the board voted to privatize it.

Bartell, the only one of the five current commissioners to oppose privatization, agreed. He wanted _ and still wants _ the staff to take a closer look.

Russo carries the criticism a point further, hitting Bartell's vote to seek bids for privatization in 1992 and again last year.

Bartell explained: "I thought it would have been irresponsible for me not to check out what private firms had to offer. But I never voted to privatize."

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