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County to look again at a tax for road repair

When voters shot down a proposed sales tax earmarked mainly for residential road repairs, the problem of crumbling streets did not go away.

Instead, roads are getting worse as the clock keeps ticking, Hernando County's public works director told county commissioners on Friday.

"Unfortunately, the defeat can't cure the problem or correct the problem," Alan Holbach told commissioners during a workshop where he presented his Public Works Department's proposed $10.7-million budget for 1996-97. "Some of (the roads) are very oxidized and worn to a point where we can't patch them anymore. We need to come to grips with this now."

The $10.7-million proposal reflects an increase of less than 1 percent over the current budget and includes four new positions. Two would be supervisors _ one for a jail inmate work crew and the other for a road-patching crew.

Also included are two new positions for a road-striping crew. The department has contracted with a private company for that service since 1992 but is taking it back because of problems with the quality and timing of the work.

Holbach said money for the new positions will come from the county's transportation trust fund, financed primarily by gas-tax revenue, rather than from property taxes.

Not included in the budget request is money to begin a program to repave neighborhood streets.

In addition to his overall budget request, Holbach presented information that estimates the county would need $2.4-million a year to maintain its 1,028 miles of paved roads after repairs are made.

Commissioners appeared willing to look into another sales-tax referendum to start a residential road program.

"I think we need to put it back on the ballot for November _ a half-cent or 1 cent for only roads for five years," Commissioner John Richardson said.

Commissioner Pat Novy agreed: "I'd support a penny."

Commissioners asked Holbach to gather information about a street-paving program so they can discuss putting on the November ballot a modified version of a proposal that failed by a 3-1 ratio in March.

Commissioners also scheduled a session for 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in the commission chambers in downtown Brooksville to discuss the nuts and bolts of a proposed road maintenance program.

The March referendum included a 15-year sales tax that would also have paid for a public works complex and partly for the paving of limerock roads. The tax would have been 1 cent for the first five years and a half-cent for the final 10.

Many opponents complained about the duration of the tax and that some of the money would have been used to build a public works complex.

Commissioners want the new proposal to include a levy of a penny for only five years, with proceeds to be spent only on road repairs. Whether it would include limerock roads and some of the county's primary roads, such as Mariner and Deltona boulevards, remains to be decided.

Fixing roads was not the only item on the table Friday. Commissioners also got a look at a proposed spending plan for the county's library system, parts of which County Administrator Chuck Hetrick has warned might have to be closed if the county's property tax rate does not increase.

Hetrick is recommending a 1-mill increase in the current tax rate of 7.858 mills. For the owner of $75,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption, that would mean an additional $50 tacked onto tax bills.

"We realize you're having to make tough, difficult decisions," Library Services Director Laurel Solomon said. "'We hope these decisions will leave the library system intact."

Solomon presented her $1.7-million budget request, a 6.8 percent increase over the current amount of almost $1.6-million. Of the requested amount for 1996-97, $1.4-million would come from county coffers.

Libraries have been a controversial topic, with some residents questioning the need for them.

On Friday, Solomon was ready, with a vigorous defense.

With the enthusiasm of a cheerleader rallying a crowd before a championship football game, she pointed out library services that she says benefit Hernando County residents.

They include a literacy program that is helping 600 adults learn to read, a program that has helped 285 inmates earn high school diplomas, as well as programs that have served 18,376 children during the past six years.

"Even if you've never stepped into a library, the fact that the library exists and is doing its job affects you," she said.

Included in Solomon's budget request are two new positions for clerks, as well as $5,423 for equipment, including two book-scanning wands and two computer work stations for employees.

Solomon said increased use of libraries has necessitated the need for the equipment and staff to maintain current service levels.