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Vermin show need for new bus depot

Rat and roach traps around and under Betty Bowden's desk are useless against the army of critters that crawls through the walls and into her office.

That's the worst part. But the sight of roaches scattering out of an open filing cabinet has become so common that it no longer startles her.

Such is life inside the Hernando school district's main transportation complex, an antiquated building with cramped quarters, leaking ceilings, musty hallways, and outdated equipment and machinery.

Transportation officials have said for years that something needs to be done about the complex at 1037 Varsity Drive, on the northern side of Brooksville.

Things have gotten so bad that at the end of the day, Bowden checks her purse to make sure she isn't carrying unwanted visitors home.

"It's just nasty," the secretary said. "We have roaches. We have ants. We have rats. We have custodians who come in every night, but there's not much you can do with this."

The bus depot on the western side of the county is no better.

Mechanics at the compound on Applegate Drive, just off U.S. 19, are responsible for the upkeep of 120 buses, but they have only two bays in which to work. Office space is just as cramped, and the bathrooms are less than ideal.

Bus driver Dottie Kells, an 11-year veteran, tries to ignore the poor conditions.

"I come in here and do my job, and I have a good outlook," said Kells, who drives middle and elementary school pupils. "What else can you do?"

The School Board is expected to do something Tuesday, when it is scheduled to select a site on which to build a new, central bus compound.

Five locations are under consideration: 59 acres on Elgin Boulevard, just west of Powell Middle School; 60 acres at Barclay Avenue and Elgin Boulevard; 60 acres along California Street, just south of Powell Road; 15 acres in Holland Springs Industrial Park near the airport that already are owned by the School Board, along with 8 additional acres near the site that would have to be purchased; and 56 acres on Wiscon Road.

School officials have been searching for more than five years for property for a new compound because, in addition to the poor working conditions, the district has outgrown both its west and east headquarters.

The district purchased the Holland Springs property in 1993. But officials since have had second thoughts about whether that is the best location from which to serve the Spring Hill area.

Now, administrators are considering property between Brooksville and Spring Hill that would have enough space for a bus complex and an elementary school.

But Mark Tallent, the district's transportation director, says he is concerned about that arrangement.

If an elementary school is built next to the new depot, he said he hopes the arrangement is better than the one at the west-side center, which shares property with Westside Elementary School.

Tallent said that fuel is stored under the compound, and that runoff and residue from the bus garage sometimes flow into the school's playground.

Another problem is that when the more than 100 buses leave the compound, they must drive through a narrow parking lot filled with Westside workers and drivers' vehicles.

To many employees at the Brooksville compound, the abysmal conditions have become part of life.

Workers who climb the attic steps don't give a second thought to a rat trap on the stairs, with an unwrapped Little Debbie's snack cake inside.

Most bring bottled water to work so they don't have to drink the chlorine-tasting liquid that runs through the pipes.

And because the men's restroom also serves as a storage closet, the guys know not to lock the door, because someone may need a mop and bucket or some cleaning solution.

Where it's clean, it's cramped. Children riding a school bus have more room than some people have in their offices.

When Tallent, who shares his office with two other administrators, has to discuss personnel matters with one of his employees, they sometimes walk to the bus yard for privacy and to escape the roar of revving engines.

"It's close proximity for everybody," said Tallent, whose office is next to the garage. "(No one) has space of their own."

The new $3-million complex will change all of that.

The architect, Craig Salley and Associates of Gainesville, will design a building that has 12 bays, a conference room, plenty of bathrooms and a private office for Tallent.

"We don't want much," said Joe Handzus, the Brooksville shop manager. "We don't want a Taj Mahal. All we want is a nice, clean facility. We'll take care of it, believe us."