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Commissioners debate purchase of SunTrust Bank building in Brooksville

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission is not finished as it continues to look at the possibility of acquiring more office space.

Less than two weeks after commissioners voted to spend $4.15 million to buy the Hernando office of the Tampa Bay Times to consolidate Utilities Department offices, County Administrator Len Sossamon led an entourage of county officials through the 33,000-square-foot SunTrust Bank building in downtown Brooksville.

The building, at Main and Jefferson streets, is directly across the street from the Hernando County Government Center.

If the commission decides to turn over more space in the government center to the judiciary, as judges have requested, other county offices could be moved to the SunTrust building.

Bank executive Jim Kimbrough has talked on and off about selling the building to the county several times in recent years.

Sossamon told commissioners this week that the building was older, with the original portion constructed in 1905, and that the next step would be to acquire appraisals to see what the building is worth.

Commissioner Diane Rowden suggested that the county staff seek appraisals the same way it did when it was exploring the purchase of the newspaper's office building. But commission chairman Nick Nicholson was adamantly opposed.

Nicholson argued that, after a recent inspection of the building, the county's own building official had said the county should not make the purchase.

Commissioner Jeff Holcomb asked for details of what kind of office space, and how much, the county needs.

Rowden argued that it was time to get appraisals. That way, she said, the county would have all of the information it needs if the commission decides to move forward to provide more space for judicial operations at the government center.

But Nicholson persisted, noting that an investigation done by the Times several years ago showed no new courtrooms were needed.

"We don't need 33,000 square feet,'' he said. "There is no justification for that.''

He said the county would be wasting money doing appraisals when the staff was not recommending the purchase.

Rowden asked Commissioner Jim Adkins if he would support getting appraisals, and he said he would. Then Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he would also support the idea if there was a special look at the issue of asbestos in the bank building. Adkins and Dukes both said they had been told that the building was clear of asbestos, but Dukes said he wanted to be sure.

"This is a big mistake,'' Nicholson said.

Sossamon then suggested that commissioners could decide on the appraisals in a couple of weeks, after a team he has assembled to do a space needs analysis for the county has completed its task.

Holcomb said he didn't see the need to reach a hurried decision because it seemed unlikely that there were many takers for the bank building.

Commissioners talked about resuming the discussion at their last meeting in September. Nicholson suggested that, in the interim, each commissioner needs to meet with the county's building official to get the full story on his assessment of the building.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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