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Group opposes motor home rally

To hear Spring Hill's Dick Pritchard tell it, P. T. Barnum had Hernando County in mind when he issued his famous "There's a sucker born every minute" quip.

Especially when it comes to writing contracts with motor-coach associations.

"This is ridiculous," said Pritchard, who spent last week picking apart a proposed four-year contract that would bring 2,500 motor homes to the Hernando County Airport for a four-day rally each February. "If P. T. Barnum were handing out awards, Hernando County would win."

Pritchard, a member of the Hernando County Good Government League, a local watchdog group, plans to raise "serious concerns" about the contract, which league members say gives the visitors the gold mine and county taxpayers the shaft.

County commissioners are scheduled today to discuss the proposal, which requires spending $30,000 of county money on infrastructure improvements at the airport, including an 8-inch water main that airport manager Bob Mattingly says will provide a long-term benefit to the airport.

County officials have said that the rally, sponsored by the Family Motorcoach Association, is expected to pump more than $5-million a year into the local economy. In granting tentative approval last month, commissioners said the investment would be worth the return.

"Sometimes you have to spend money to make money," Commissioner Paul Sullivan said when the association made its presentation Feb. 25. Sullivan said last week that he still supports the motor home rally in Hernando.

In a memo accompanying the proposed contract, county officials say the county will reap $15,000 a year in sales, tourism and gasoline taxes.

Commission Chairman Ray Lossing declined to comment on the Good Government League's concerns, except to say, "It's typical of those folks."

He said he hadn't read the proposed contract as of Monday afternoon but planned to before today's meeting.

"There's a good chance that grants will pay for this," Lossing said.

Commissioner Pat Novy said she has several problems with the contract and will grill staff members about those today.

"At first, I was supportive of this because I thought the research had been done, but it hasn't," she said. Novy said it does not matter if the $30,000 ends up coming out of the airport fund, which is supported mainly by airport land leases rather than property taxes.

"I don't give a flying flip if it comes out of Jesus' back pocket," she said. Novy pointed out that the county turned down funding requests from AmeriCorps and a non-profit spay-neuter program, groups that would have served county residents.

"These are life needs," she said.

The Good Government League, which has opposed the agreement from the time it was first discussed, says it is unlikely that the rally would generate as much money as county officials expect.

"It appears Hernando County does a better background check when hiring workers who make minimum wage than it does when signing contracts that will cost the taxpayers possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars," league Chairman John Tenini wrote in a letter to the commission.

Tenini questions Hernando's demand for a minimum of only $5,000 in fees from the association, saying the amount is too small considering that taxpayers are footing at least $30,000.

League members also take issue with the association's request that the county build a 6,000-square-foot hangar that the association will lease for four years.

Tenini also says the association has unpaid bills with previous host sites and that the city of Zephyrhills turned down a bid to host the event.

A Zephyrhills official disputes that. He says the association turned down Zephyrhills.

"We were definitely working toward working with them," said Jim Werme, manager of Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. He said the land that the association wanted to use did not belong to the airport, so city officials could not enter a lease agreement.

Werme said he talked with Tenini but said league members apparently "heard what they wanted to hear."

"I think they're just trying to stir up some muck," he said.

Motor coach association officials were attending a rally in California and could not be reached for comment Monday.

However, Pat Brewer, a Hernando County funeral home owner and incoming president of a motor home group affiliated with the Family Motorcoach Association, defended the national group, saying that members spend large sums of money wherever they rally and that the group is financially solvent.

"Money is not a problem for the Family Motorcoach Association," he said. "I can't believe somebody is opposing this."