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Official finds VA clinic "inadequate'

A federal Department of Veterans Affairs official recently called the agency's local veterans health care clinic "inadequate" and said he hopes to find a "more suitable" location.

Now Citrus County officials say they will do all they can to help the federal agency find a new home _ within the county.

"They have expressed an interest in finding suitable space within the same geographic area," Commissioner Vicki Phillips said Tuesday during the County Commission meeting. The commission voted unanimously to offer the federal government its assistance in finding a new home for the clinic.

County Administrator Richard Wesch said the commission might even consider purchasing space for a veterans' health clinic, then leasing a portion to the federal government.

Phillips suggested the county's own Department of Veterans Services could be relocated to such a facility to create a "one-stop shop" for veterans.

Wesch added that other county social service agencies might also be a good fit for the facility.

The need for a move was detailed in an Oct. 27 memo written by Frederick L. Malphurs, director of the North Florida/South Florida Veterans Health System. He said the agency's current Inverness location, at 401 N Central Ave., "no longer meets the needs . . . due to inadequate space, and is not conducive to quality patient care."

The clinic's lease will expire in June 2005, according to the memo. "Now is the proper time to begin the transition process," Malphurs wrote.

The clinic, which provides basic health care services, was a welcome sight for thousands of veterans when it opened in 2000. They previously traveled to Gainesville, Ocala or Brooksville for care.

Citrus County is home to more than 25,000 veterans, and half of them are older than 65.

The location most often touted as a possible new location is the former Heritage Hospital and Brown Schools site in Lecanto.

State Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, supports turning the empty site into an outpatient veterans clinic. Veterans Affairs officials toured the hospital site earlier this year with a member of U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's staff. The representative is pushing federal officials to consider various locations in her district as possible sites for additional VA clinics.

In other County Commission action on Tuesday:

The county's utilities crew, so new that the workers have not yet been hired, will build the wastewater force main along U.S. 19 from Chassahowitzka to Yulee Drive and connect it to the Meadowcrest wastewater treatment plant.

County estimates showed that a contractor would charge $1.16-million for the work, while the county could complete the job in-house for $863,000.

County commissioners had reservations about completing the work with the county's staff. Commissioner Gary Bartell said he would like to see such projects put out for bid in the future so the county can get a better assessment of whether it is saving money. Commissioner Roger Batchelor said that, based on his prior construction experience, he fears the problems that the utilities crew might encounter in that part of the county.

"I don't have any doubt that we would save money on this particular property because I have gotten prices recently for underground work, and they're absolutely astronomical," Commissioner Jim Fowler said. But Fowler went on to say that he remains uncertain whether the utilities crew will save the county money in the long run.

Despite the reservations, only Phillips voted against using the county's crew for the work. The staff proposal passed 4-1.

The commission also unanimously agreed to request a hearing with the Southwest Florida Water Management District regarding the district's approval of the county's new water use permit.

While the proposed permit allows the county access to a sufficient amount of water through the year 2009, it made the permit contingent on conditions the county disagrees with.

"It does appear that a lot of this are things they're requiring the county to perform that is within the Swiftmud jurisdiction, and areas they should be shouldering rather than local government," Phillips said.

Added Fowler, the commission chairman: "Here's an agency that gets part of its funding from the taxpayers of this county, and now we have to go to the expense of an administrative hearing," Fowler said.

But Wesch reminded the commission that the county's staff will try to negotiate a compromise with Swiftmud. "It's a tremendous waste of resources to litigate against another (government) agency," Wesch said.