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County takes up juggling act for grant money

Like parents shifting money in the family checkbook from the kids' college fund to cover a roofing emergency, County Commissioners on Tuesday found themselves performing a complicated financial juggling act.

To get money from the state for water and sewer construction, the county has to put up a chunk of the total bill to show it is serious about the projects. Citrus' legislators have told the county that Tallahassee is becoming even stingier with its grants, so if Citrus hopes to have a prayer of getting help, it better come up with $3.3-million in matching funds.

Promises and IOUs are not going to cut it. Only those with real money need apply.

Oh, and the deadline for applying is Friday.

The city of Inverness, which is hoping to partner with the county and state on a number of wastewater projects, found $1.5-million under the couch cushions and in the mayonnaise jar, leaving the county to raise $1.8-million. Not peanuts, but certainly possible in a $126-million county budget.

That set the stage for Tuesday's exercise in hand-wringing.

The options were to strip money from other projects, get a loan from the state or set up assessment districts so that those residents who will directly benefit from the improvements will pay for them.

After more than an hour of debate, the commissioners decided to do a bit of all of the above.

The county will take money from five projects to make up the matching funds. By March, the county should find out whether it will receive any grant money. If, like last year, Gov. Jeb Bush says no to our needs, those funds will be returned to those projects.

But if the grants come through and the big wastewater projects get rolling, it will take quite some time before the assessments from property owners start flowing in. The commissioners at that point may look into a low-interest loan from the state so that the raided projects can be made whole. That debt, in turn, will be repaid by residents who will hook up to the water and sewer lines.

See? It all fits together.

All that has to happen for this to work is for the state, which is still strapped with hurricane recovery bills and rising Medicaid costs and other hardships, to provide money for grants.

And not dump some other unfunded mandates, such as the costs of court services or juvenile justice, on the counties.

And for the county to set up the assessment districts quickly and get the engineering and other prep work done.

And put in the pipelines so the county can start billing the customers.

And for the commission to stand up to the political pressure that is likely to come from property owners once they they get bills for a couple of thousand dollars in utility fees.

And for the commission to find the courage to charge those utility customers the full freight and not, as Commissioner Vicki Phillips reminds us, to continue our practice of subsidizing those costs through property tax dollars.

And to secure a state loan at a manageable rate.

And to get this money into the county coffers so that the raided projects can get moving again.

And hope that no unforeseen glitches arise in the many projects on the drawing board.

Sure, that's a lot of balls to keep in the air. But if none hit the ground, Citrus will see substantially improved water quality on the east and west sides of the county.

What was striking, and refreshing, about the commission's decision were the guiding principles that all five members enunciated: These were important projects. They are long overdue. We will do them economically but not on the cheap. And, most important, those who receive the benefits will pay the bill.

With similar debates looming for the board in the coming weeks on everything from whether to raise impact fees to how best to pay for firefighters, Tuesday's discussion telegraphed the commission's position will be fair but firm.

Even if it takes some deft juggling to make it all happen.