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Panel outlines building needs for county

For more than a year, Irma Carr sat through meeting after meeting of Hernando County's facilities master plan steering committee.

Named to the committee because she complained about the expenses that might result, Carr heard many arguments about how many new government buildings the county might need _ where, and at what cost.

"I honestly didn't care for any of it," she said of the discussions. "Realize, I do not have a lot of money, and when I see these thousands and millions of dollars they pass on, it just baffles me."

Yet when county commissioners on Tuesday consider adopting the committee's recommendations, Carr does not intend to object.

"They need to do something," she explained.

Indeed, if a $180,000 consultant's report is accurate, county government currently needs 61,000 square feet of office space more than it has. Within 20 years, that deficit will grow to 315,000 square feet, the consultant said.

In real terms, that shortfall translates into overcrowded courtrooms, an overflowing Sheriff's Office headquarters and rented offsite department space.

The solution, committee members say, includes building a new courthouse and parking structure in downtown Brooksville, expanding government in its current location, expanding the county jail, constructing a new emergency operations center, expanding the Sheriff's Office and building libraries in the east and west.

"If the facts that we were presented by the consultant with regard to projections and demographics are correct, I don't think the commission has any choice but to consider the plan," committee member Steve Zeledon said. "Otherwise, what they're doing is abdicating their responsibility and leaving it for the next commission to decide."

At least one commissioner has objected to taking up the recommendations, especially as a part of the consent agenda, where uncontroversial items usually go.

"I'm very concerned about the financial stability of the county now," Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "What's the purpose? If you don't even have a clue of where you're getting the money, then why approve it? We should have known if the money was available before ever spending on the consultant."

The courthouse construction project carries an estimated cost of $28.7-million. A 120,000-square-foot jail addition, targeted for 2010, would cost about $15.6-million.

County Administrator Paul McIntosh contended that commissioners would not commit money by adopting the plan.

"It means you've completed step one, and step one is identifying the facilities you're going to need over a certain period of time," McIntosh said. "Step two is developing a financial plan for how to accomplish" the program.

Other commissioners saw things McIntosh's way.

"It's just pretty much approving the road map to look at doing it," Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said of the commission's pending action. "It's not really designating any funding to do it at this time."

Whitehouse considered the adoption a formality, by which the commission would receive a committee report on expansion. The decision of when, or if, any construction might occur would remain for another day, she said.

The commission might want to tweak some of the details, Commissioner Nancy Robinson said. But the underlying concepts appear fine, she added, noting that the county can change the plan if circumstances dictate.

"Conceptual doesn't mean binding," Chairman Chris Kingsley said in agreement. "When you have a conceptual plan, then the next step is to see if it's feasible. If it's not affordable, then, obviously, you can't do it."

Carr said she hopes the commission will take the funding aspects seriously and look at all the available options, including use of existing buildings.

"It is a hefty price," she remarked. "To me, there are quite a few other buildings that could be used for some services. . . . My first question, of course, is where is the money coming from?"

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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