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Creativity vital to ease county's office space crunch

Stop us if you've heard this before: Government offices in Citrus County are bursting at the seams. More space is needed, the sooner the better.

This lament has been voiced so many times that it makes Chicken Little blush.

While it is entirely likely that the work spaces of everyone from the judges and their affiliated staffers to the constitutional officers are getting cramped as more employees and pounds of paperwork are generated, let's all take a moment to think things through before we go looking for a general contractor.

Yes, the county's population is growing rapidly, and that translates into the need for more government services. But it does not necessarily follow that every agency has to hire more workers to keep pace with this growth.

Yes, the judicial services are busier than ever, and there are more judges on the way. But can the courthouse crowd truly say that all available space is being used at maximum efficiency? That every courtroom is in use every day, all day? That some of the traffic jams could not be eased by creative scheduling, such as court sessions on nights and weekends?

Yes, the amount of paperwork being generated is staggering and Florida law requires virtually all of these public records to be stored for long periods of time. All of these files take up an enormous amount of space, room that might be better utilized.

But in this digital age, can these records be maintained on discs, thereby eliminating the need for miles of files? And if the public records laws, written before the age of the CD burner, prohibit this, are our records custodians pushing our legislators to update these laws?

Every few years, the rumblings start that one or more areas of the government need more room. Sometimes relief comes easily, as an agency shuffles its space or moves some of its operations elsewhere.

Other times, such as the late 1990s, full-blown warfare erupts when someone raises the possibility of moving the county seat from Inverness to Lecanto so that bigger office buildings can be constructed in the center of Citrus, where more open land is available.

That ugly balloon is not being floated - yet. But with plans well under way for a new Emergency Operations Center to be built in Lecanto, it is not hard to envision the sheriff spending more time in this new edifice and tacitly moving his base of operations to the building with all the new bells and whistles.

Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni points out that it would be illegal for constitutional officers to do so as the law requires the "significance of operations" to be maintained in the county seat.

However, the County Commission in 1999 passed a resolution that established new boundaries for the county seat, reaching all the way from Inverness west along State Road 44 and into Lecanto.

No one really thinks of Lecanto as being part of the county seat. But, as DiGiovanni noted, the commission's resolution has never been rescinded - or challenged in court.

At the moment, the push for more room is being led by the judiciary, which is feeling squeezed despite having moved into a 40,000-square-foot addition to the courthouse in 2003. One alarming solution being considered is coverting the Historic Courthouse in Inverness from a charming museum into a working office building.

That idea should be quickly put to rest. If office space is so tight that the county would even consider ruining this historic building's character by installing armed bailiffs and metal detectors in its restored doorways and taking this jewel away from the visiting public, then our decisionmakers truly are losing their perspective.

It is a given that the county will have to wrestle with space problems in Inverness. There is only so much elbow room left, and the demand for it will only get greater as the city's revival makes it more attractive to businesses as well as government.

But our local government officials have a long way to go before they can truly tell the taxpayers that they have explored every possible alternative to the expensive bricks-and-mortar solution.