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Chassahowitzka water projects need to be funded

Once again I find myself vilified by the press for expressing my right and responsibility as a county commissioner on a controversial issue. This time it is my steadfast belief that Citrus County must establish a dedicated funding source for utility service to our environmentally sensitive areas.

According to the University of South Florida, there is a documented health risk related to contaminants from septic tanks serving Chassahowitzka. These septic tanks are more than likely perfectly legal. What is known today but was unknown years ago is that septic tanks sitting just above our groundwater pollutes. Not enough percolation (filtering) occurs from the drain field as it filters down to our drinking water.

Many years ago, development was allowed where it would never be permitted today. In Chassahowitzka, Riverhaven, Indian Waters and many other areas, the water table is within reach of a round point shovel.

Because science now tells us this pollution is taking place, shouldn't it be our goal and commitment as a community of people who love this place to clean up the mess that has been made?

Let's begin the effort to stop the decline in the water quality of our rivers, lakes, streams and the very water we drink and let's not place 100 percent of the financial burden for these very expensive projects on the backs of those living in these areas like Chassahowitzka, a community of moderate means.

The county had authorized its staff to move forward on providing water and sewer to Chassahowitzka. Grant money of $4.3-million was to be used to fund 40 percent of the project. Even that leaves the 600 Chassahowitzka homeowners with a tax bill of more than $10,000 each to replace their legal septic tanks.

We, the County Commission, have been told by state legislators that future grants of this nature will not be available for these projects in other areas of our county unless we are willing to put up matching funds. That requires that a dedicated funding source be established by the County Commission. No one else can do it.

It requires that the County Commission, which loves to "talk the talk" to now "walk the walk." It requires that commissioners who built their careers on claiming to care for this county and making water quality their top priority to do something more than talk about it. It's been talked about for 30 years.

At our last meeting Feb. 14, needing three votes in favor and knowing Commissioner Dennis Damato and I had both stated publicly that we were committed to this cause, I sought to get a commitment from Commissioner Gary Bartell. It was a long, civil, courteous discussion.

Finally, I asked Commissioner Bartell for just a gentleman's agreement to direct the staff who are working on next year's budget to build that $175- to $200-million budget around our top priority, water quality. He refused. I failed to persuade him to do the right thing.

The next day, I read in the local paper Commissioner Bartell referred to this discussion as being illegal. The county attorney was present during these discussions and made no comment. The fact is nothing could be further from the truth. The only legal place county commissioners are allowed by law to discuss these issues is at a public meeting. I've since received a written opinion from the county attorney and, of course, the discussion was legal.

In the days following and in the local papers, Commissioner Bartell called me a "bully" for engaging in these discussions, a peculiar choice of words given the circumstances. Bullheaded, maybe.

I made it clear in January 2006 that I desired a dedicated funding source and an assessment cap. Only one of my fellow commissioners is willing to make that commitment, Commissioner Dennis Damato.

I am not going to engage in name calling. This is too important an issue. I am prepared to discuss the provision of water and sewer at any time. I am willing to consider any viable alternative or counter proposal to establish a permanent funding source. I am willing to consider alternative special assessment caps.

What I am not willing to do is continue haphazard hat-in-hand, project-by-political whim approach to utility provisions. Nor am I willing to place extreme financial burdens on county homeowners in the name of environmental protection when there is clear documentation that we are all contributors to the problem.

It's unfortunate these decades have rolled by with nothing done. Just consider how much less it would have cost 20 years ago. But guess what. The costs will continue to rise. It will never cost less than it will today, and someday the state might force us to do it.

Let's begin now.

In this discussion, we must remember that Chassahowitzka is the beginning and not the end of what must be a long-term commitment to bring central sewer to the environmentally sensitive areas of our county.

We must remember that we are one county. Even if we do not live on the water, we do all benefit from a clean, healthy environment. Now is the time for discussion and leadership, not issue avoidance and name calling. I implore my fellow commissioners to at least engage in a meaningful discussion to find a resolution to this important issue.

Jim Fowler is the District 4 county commissioner. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which do no necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.