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County is adding 5 building inspectors

Growth in Citrus County, which continues to increase annually, pushed county commissioners to hire five new building inspectors Tuesday.

Besides the construction of about 3,000 new homes last year, people rebuilding from a busy storm season that damaged at least 1,330 Citrus homes also have added to the workload of the county's 14-person building division.

In 2004, the county received more than 16,000 building permit applications, 24 percent more than the 13,148 applications it received during 2003. That, along with inspectors doing twice as many inspections in 2004 than the year before, led commissioners to unanimously create the five new positions.

"Code upgrades have mandated a lot of things inspectors do now that they haven't done in prior years," Commissioner Dennis Damato, a general contractor, said of state building code revisions of 2002.

The positions cost about $340,000, including salaries of between $40,000 and $43,000 per inspector. The money to pay for this comes from county building fees _ not taxes _ which has generated a $2-million surplus.

Additionally, commissioners allowed the building division to hire more employees whenever inspectors each have more than 20 inspections daily. If ever there were a downturn in the economy and growth slowed, county officials said, layoffs would take place to eliminate the excess staff.

"But the way we're going," Commission Chairwoman Vicki Phillips said, "I don't see that changing for years."

Money shifted for shot at grants

Commissioners were faced with a Friday deadline to find $1.8-million in matching money if they wanted the state to consider four projects for possible grant funding.

Last month, the state told Florida counties that if they want their projects considered, local communities would have to pony up money, too. Stormwater or lake and river restoration projects, for instance, require counties committing to pay 50 percent. Then the state might agree to pay the rest. A sewer project, meanwhile, requires counties pitching in 25 percent before the state considers issuing a grant that would cover the remaining cost.

The county has four proposed projects officials would like state grants for, amounting to $13.5-million _ $3.3-million of which Citrus must pay. The projects include the $500,000 fourth phase of the Homosassa South Fork Water Quality Project, which would filter stormwater runoff (and was vetoed by the governor last year); the $6.6-million Inverness sewer plant upgrade and east Citrus sewer service expansion; and two phases that would add $6.4-million worth of sewer service in Homosassa.

The city of Inverness agreed to provide nearly $1.5-million in matching money to help the county, leaving Citrus County government to find the $1.8-million.

Commissioner Gary Bartell proposed shifting money budgeted for several longer term county projects to make up that portion. But other commissioners balked at those projects being eliminated or postponed for years.

The projects on the chopping block included seawall and parking improvements to Fort Island Trail Park, lake and river water quality projects, a remodeling of the elections office and money set aside for a possible recreation complex that could include a large water park.

"I don't believe any of these projects need to go away," Commissioner Jim Fowler said. He proposed making people who would benefit from new sewer service in Homosassa and east county areas to pay assessments that would add up to $1.8-million.

Other commissioners agreed. "These projects shouldn't be put on hold," Joyce Valentino said.

Phillips said Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill called her Monday night lobbying for her not to cut $400,000 budgeted for an office remodeling, which has been pushed aside for two years.

"We should keep in mind that her space needs are not going away," Phillips said. "I'm not for putting her off another year."

In the end, all five commissioners finally agreed with Fowler's suggestion. They took money from five projects, including the elections office and the water park, to apply for the state grants with the intent of refilling those funds by assessing people who get sewer service special charges.

Ambulance service fees increased

Commissioners allowed Nature Coast Emergency Medical Services, which provides the county with ambulance service, to raise its fees to cover operating expenses and to eventually wean itself from county subsidies, which amount to almost $1-million a year.

Among rate increases, trips requiring basic life support ($330) and advanced life support ($473) jump to $500. Treatment of patients who don't require transport now costs $200. It had been free before.

The cost of trips also increased by $1 to $8.50 per mile.

The increases might some day save the county $300,000. Eventually, executive director Teresa Gorentz said, Nature Coast EMS would like to be completely funded by fees.

Land dispute reaching resolution

Commissioners agreed to set a Feb. 22 public hearing to consider buying 3.5 acres just north of the Crystal River Airport for $760,000, which would end a building dispute.

In 2003, the land's owners received the go-ahead from the county to sell the property to Ryan's Steakhouse for a proposed restaurant.

But county officials later refused to approve development plans because the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to withhold money for airport improvements if the restaurant were built because of its proximity to the runway.

The property owners, threatening a lawsuit, offered in January to sell the site to the county for $1.2-million. In November, they lowered their price to $850,000.

The Property Appraiser's Office assessed the site's value at $298,100, and commissioners agreed last year to have independent appraisals done.

Those came back at $760,000, county officials said Tuesday.

Hampshire Street speed lowered

The speed on Hampshire Street just outside Inverness and partly within Citrus Hills was lowered by 5 mph to 25 mph after county Public Works officials agreed with many residents who say too many speeders are taking advantage of the road.

More than 150 people, almost all of them Citrus Hills residents who regularly drive Hampshire, signed a petition late last year asking the Citrus County Sheriff's Office to see what could be done to slow traffic on the hilly road. The request was forwarded to the county, which is in charge of the road's speed and design.

"The community is experiencing growth's impact," said Valentino, who championed lowering the speed limit. The proposal was approved unanimously.

Justin George can be reached at (352) 860-7309 or