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County's new leader just dives right on in

Gary Kuhl thought he was awake Friday morning.

As he prepared for a busy weekend and the coming week from his Floral City home, the former Citrus County administrator said he felt ready to take over as Hernando's top appointed county government official.

But between leaving one job and starting another, the incoming Hernando administrator has found himself caught in a whirlwind of events.

Hired by the County Commission on Feb. 2 - with a contract that would penalize him for leaving early - he has already been to several meetings to get a better idea of what's going on.

Among other issues, there are property tax rate reductions, the county budget, a growing population and problems at the county jail.

Commissioners have also pulled him aside to talk over their goals and concerns.

On Thursday, he and his wife, Elicia, took a tour of the Brooksville City Hall and met with city officials.

Friday afternoon, he said goodbye to co-workers at the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He worked there as operations director.

On Saturday, he celebrated his 60th birthday with family and close friends. His three sons and 80-year-old mother were expected to arrive and watch him blow out candles in the back yard at his home.

His last official day at Swiftmud is Tuesday. He's supposed to be sitting in his new office at the Hernando County Government Center in downtown Brooksville on Wednesday morning.

On Thursday, he's scheduled to be the guest of honor at a public reception at the government center.

In the meantime, he's also been on an alleged vacation. He says he did manage to get away for a few days of boating and fishing.

"You feel good that you made it this far," he said, laughing about his schedule and milestone birthday.

As he steps into his new role as county administrator, Kuhl said he considers ongoing problems at the county jail to be a top priority. Three suicides have occurred there since November. An inmate also recently escaped from the error-prone jail.

Along with commissioners, Kuhl has met with new warden Don Stewart. For the most part, he said, plans for change at the jail - including a new suicide prevention program and dealing with the underpaid and under-trained staff - appear to be well thought out.

When it comes to the 2006-07 budget and a possible property tax rate reduction of up to 0.50 mills, Kuhl said he understands residents' concerns about high property taxes.

At the Feb. 14 commission meeting, a county resident dropped off 11,600 signatures on petitions demanding lower taxes. On the flip side, there are projects that need tending to in a growing county, Kuhl said. For example, Hernando needs to think about expensive but necessary road and building projects.

"The judicial system does not have adequate space," he said. "We need to think about whether a new building is needed, come up with other locations or stay in place. There are lots of things to think about, and all these needs have to be balanced."

As administrator, he said, he hopes to meet with department heads weekly. He likes status reports and knowing what's going on and where.

But he doesn't want to interfere with anyone's job. After all, he said, department heads are the experts.

When it comes to a sometimes hands-on commission, Kuhl said he will caution board members about wasting time over what one commissioner may want that the other four don't see as important.

In particular, he cited politically driven projects that sometimes creep into governments of any kind. He wants to ensure that county staffers don't waste their time on such projects or issues.

"But being involved is a good trait for elected officials to have," he said. "And I've heard nothing but compliments about how commissioners and staff, not to mention citizens, work together."

Those positives drown periodic thoughts he has about the departure of former administrator Gary Adams. Adams resigned in October after less than two years on the job. He cited negativity in the county.

Adams' resignation is one reason Kuhl's four-year contract includes an early departure clause.

Ultimately, Kuhl said, he realizes that he's on the periphery of county government at this point. But the warm welcome he has received so far seems like a good sign.

"Everyone seems ready and willing to help," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1432.

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