Thursday, Oct 30, 2014
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County admins' residency questioned

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BROOKSVILLE - Out of the county's five administrators, only two live in Hernando County. Only one owns property here.

And that makes several government critics mad.

These five top managers, they said, were instrumental in drafting a new 2013-14 budget that calls for a tax hike and yet have no stake in the process because they don't live here or own a home.

Others, including a county commissioner, call this much ado about nothing and say what matters most is the commitment to the county in which they serve.

County Administrator Len Sossamon rents a home in Brooksville, within walking distance of his downtown office.

Assistant county administrators Brian Malmberg and George Zoettlein live in Citrus County, while Ron Pianta commutes from his Pasco County home.

Only Assistant Administrator Russ Wetherington lives in Hernando County and owns a home in Spring Hill.

State law requires Sossamon to live in Hernando County but there are no such rules pertaining to the deputy administrators or upper management.

Brooksville business owner Anna Liisa Covell said she finds it unconscionable that these upper-level managers, who are making close to six-figure salaries, leave Hernando County every night and go to their homes in other counties. They need to live here, she said.

"I think it gives them a better perspective on how they're spending other people's money," she said. "(They're) making major decisions on how the government is being run and how the budget is being spent."

There is a reason why the city of Brooksville mandates its council members to live within city limits, she said. It's to get the pulse of the community and to be subject to the same tax rates and ordinances as the people they represent.

County commissioners are also required to live within the county district they represent.

Government watchdog Anthony Palmieri said the assistant deputy positions were only created within the last year and the question never came up as to whether they should also adhere to the administrator's requirement to live inside the county.

Maybe it's time to broach the matter, he said.

"I think that some kind of discussion should take place among the county commissioners at the board level and determine whether it's necessary for them to reside in the county," Palmieri said.

Palmieri added that he would like to think that upper-level managers have the welfare of the county at heart, no matter where they live.

"Whether or not you reside in the county, you're supposed to do what's best for that county," he said.

Palmieri said the disadvantage of requiring residence for the assistant administrators is that it may discourage some qualified applicants from taking the position because they would have to move.

v vCounty commissioners this week, after listening to a budget presentation from Zoettlein, tentatively approved a tax hike of about 1 mill, which would increase people's annual taxes by about $50.

Commissioners have steadily lowered the size of the tax hike, which the administrator's office had originally set at 7.3691 mills, or 24.5 percent higher than the current rate.

Zoettlein said when he was hired 15 years ago there was no requirement that he live in Hernando County.

He dismisses criticism that he does not have the best interests of the county at heart when preparing budgets or proposing tax hikes.

Zoettlein said he would actually fare better living here because the proposed millage rate hike is not as steep as Citrus County, which is considering a 2 mill increase. Zoettlein said he spends more time in Hernando County than Citrus anyway.

"I was hired to do a job and I do the job to the best of my ability," he said. "It doesn't matter if I live here or not."

If there is to be a discussion about changing the residency requirements, then Zoettlein said it is not fair to draw the line only at upper managers. It should encompass everyone from the rank and file to managers, he said.

Paul Douglas, president of the Hernando County branch of the NAACP, said there is no question that upper-level administrators should be living here.

County commissioners, he said, can give them a period of time - perhaps six months to a year - to make the move.

"If you're going to make a decision about my taxes, why is it that your decision doesn't affect (the administrators') taxes?" Douglas asked.

And for Douglas, it's not all about taxes.

"In order for us to show commitment to our upper-level managers of the county, I would say that they should be a part of our county in every aspect," Douglas said. "And it's not just the taxes. It shows a strong commitment to our county."

v vCounty Commissioner Jim Adkins said it would not be appropriate to ask the existing assistant administrators to move to Hernando County because they are already established in homes elsewhere. Any changes in residency requirements would have to apply to future hires, he said.

Adkins said people have a constitutional right to live where they want, unless statutes dictate otherwise. He said it his understanding that Sossamon, who was hired 16 months ago, will buy a home here once his wife retires and moves here from North Carolina.

Wetherington, who heads up general services, said he moved to Hernando County from Volusia County (where his wife still lives in a home they own) because it was "the right thing to do."

Besides, it would have been a long commute, he joked.

Wetherington was surprised when told he was the sole county property owner but said he doesn't think the place of residence has anything to do with any tax hike decisions or other business his colleagues do daily.

They all have the best interests of taxpayers at heart, he said, and do not make decisions based on how it will affect them personally.

Sossamon said he cannot recall any other government entity requiring deputy county administrators to reside in the county they serve.

He welcomes a board discussion on the matter.

"I understand both sides of it and I can see what the people are saying," he said.

mbates@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5290

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