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Friday, Mar 27, 2015

Brooksville, Hernando officials finding common ground


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Last week city residents learned Hernando County once again will provide mosquito spraying in Brooksville.

For four months city and county officials disputed how to pay for the service. The two sides ultimately decided they needed to stop working at cross purposes and sit down to discuss the problem. The result: a solution.

That’s the way government is supposed to work, said Jennene Norman-Vacha, Brooksville’s city manager. Both county and city officials share a goal of serving taxpayers and must work together for that purpose, she said.

“We’re doing a lot of talking together about living in the same county, being in the same county and working together in ways where we are helping each other,” Norman-Vacha said.

Norman-Vacha said representatives from both municipalities have met regularly for the last couple of months and have discussed the Penny for Projects sales tax referendum, impact fees, shared services and other issues.

Norman-Vacha said she doesn’t know how or why the friction developed between the county and city.

“It’s kind of bizarre,” she said. “It didn’t feel right. It just seemed like at every turn, there were decisions that didn’t feel right.”

The city manager said Hernando County and Brooksville serve many of the same taxpayers — even if the county serves more.

“The way we approach services should be together,” she said. “We’re having some great conversations and we’re seeing some great results.”

Those meetings have grown to include Norman-Vacha, County Administrator Len Sossamon, County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes, Brooksville Mayor Kevin Hohn and attorneys for the county and city. School Superintendent Lori Romano has started participating in the meetings, as well.

“We are very, very pleased and very positive as we move forward to keep working collaboratively and cooperatively for our community,” Norman-Vacha said. “I think that’s what taxpayers want and that’s our business. Most people don’t see jurisdictional lines. We all have a little bit of a different function but underlying commonalities.”

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Sossamon laid down his vision for this new spirit at a recent Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce gathering where he stressed his three-pronged initiative of “cooperation, collaboration and partnerships.”

Working together maximizes the chances of creating jobs for all residents, Sossamon said. And the idea is not to get together for the purpose of meeting.

“It’s not just an intersection for common beliefs,” he said.

It is hoped that from these regular meetings a strategic alliance is formed with clear-cut initiatives to achieve those goals, Sossamon said.

Brooksville Mayor Kevin Hohn said the mosquito resolution grew out of a sense of urgency and brought both sides to the table.

Once seated, both realized there are other issues to be worked out.

“We got to know each other,” Hohn said. “That’s how you get things done. You have to talk to each other and understand the other’s point of view.”

Hohn said this collaborative effort is an ongoing process that should yield dividends to taxpayers.

“There’s no way a city and a county can function properly if they are always at odds with one another,” he said. The relationship is starting to get back on track. (The) days of the city and the county squabbling over issues is not going to happen anymore.”

For example, contention arose recently between the school district and the county commission after the latter voted in March to extend a moratorium on educational impact fees.

But last month the school district opted to work with the county to promote the Penny for Projects referendum that will appear on the November general election ballot.

School board members maintain it is time to work with the county to achieve the desired result: needed revenue for school buildings and other improvements to facilities.

“I give credit to the county commission,” Hohn said. “They’ve come to the table in an honest and open way and we’ve done the same thing.”

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Hohn said other issues to be worked out between the two governments are IT services and a sheriff’s communications system.

Both sides had met monthly but now do so weekly, he said.

In the past, county officials made promises they did not fulfill, Hohn said.

School Board member Gus Guadagnino voted against the partnership on the sales tax referendum and still questions its effectiveness.

But he said mutual cooperation does not mean all parties will agree about all issues and it is unrealistic to expect that. The fact all parties are coming to the table and sharing their diverse views is promising, he said.

Guadagnino said he doesn’t expect old wounds will heal quickly because there are long-standing disputes. But it’s a start.

“I’m a firm believer that there should be more collaboration,” he said.

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