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The first 100 days

Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 06:03 PM

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Most days, Leonard Sossamon will leave his second-floor office at the downtown government center after work, travel the short distance to his rented Brooksville home, put on shorts and sneakers and do a four- or five-mile walk around the neighborhood.

Coming from North Carolina, the county administrator says he doesn't mind the heat and humidity.

If he's in the mood, Sossamon cooks up some pasta or pork chops, kicks back with a book or watches something on the Food Channel. Often, he drives back to his office for some late-night work where he is undisturbed by the daytime crush of appointments and interruptions.

Sossamon recently passed the 100-day mark of his tenure. He didn't even realize it until a Hernando Today reporter reminded him.

He's just been too busy: there was Tropical Storm Debby that came through in June, causing flooding problems that still linger. Another storm, Isaac, caused some anxiety before moving away from the area.

Animal Services was in the midst of a controversy following the public outcry about the same day euthanasia of a dog and other operation practices. County commissioners were in the thick of budget battles, and dealing with a shortfall that seemed to increase weekly.

Even with the hectic schedule, Sossamon, 62, has managed to shoehorn in the occasional drive to North Carolina, to visit his wife Esther, who is staying on there until she retires from her AT&T job in June.

And through it all, Sossamon has been putting the finishing touches on a 25-year strategic plan for Hernando County.

That plan, which Sossamon calls his baby, is almost complete and charts a course for where he believes Hernando County must go to remain economically strong and a place people want to live.

"I heard a lot of talk about strategic plans when I got here but I never actually saw one," Sossamon said.

Sossamon, who worked with the Alliance Development Group LLC in Charlotte N.C. before coming here, said he's only been here three months and he is already enamored of the county.

Hernando County, he said, is fortunate to be rural but so close to the urban areas of Tampa and St. Petersburg. He likes the geographical and topographical dichotomy of the county: rolling hills in the east and the gulf on the west.

And everywhere he goes, he sees a sea of green.

Looking out of his huge windowed office at the government center, he points out the green trees and foliage of downtown Brooksville and beyond.

County commissioners were looking for a "people person" in their next administrator and Sossamon would seem to fit that description. He also plans to break the string of revolving door administrators who up and leave soon after being hired.

Whether it's talking to the custodial staff at the government office or patrons at local stores and restaurants, Sossamon says it's indicative of who he is.

With his distinctive Southern accent and demeanor, Sossamon seems unflappable during county commission meetings when he has to defuse many citizens' complaints or answer tough questions from staff.

He believes his relationship with board members is solid. Former administrator David Hamilton fell out of favor with commissioners toward the end of his tenure.

The board cited morale problems with employees and a lack of trust.

Sossamon says he believes morale has improved and believes in open communication with department heads and board members to avoid some of the administrative landmines that blew up in front of the previous officeholder.

Outside the boardroom

In his spare time, Sossamon says he likes to cook. He prides himself on a mean chili recipe, but admits people may need a cast iron stomach.

"I made some chili recently and on a scale of 1-10 in hotness it was a nine-plus," he jokes.

His taste in books is eclectic and ranges from professional journals, local and out-of-state newspapers and some fiction.

He is a huge football fan and has a special affinity for the University of North Carolina Tarheels.

Of course, the recent Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers game posed somewhat of a dilemma for Sossamon.

But because he now considers this area his home, "I was actually pulling for the Bucs," he said.

Sossamon is a NASCAR fan and has a signed Richard Petty cap in his office. He admires Dale Earnhardt Jr.

There are also motorcycle helmets displayed on the shelves. Sossamon said he rode cycles when he was younger.

"I wrecked three of them so I don't ride anymore," he joked.

A jazz aficionado, Sossamon has displayed a poster of Dizzy Gillespie from the 2007 South Carolina Jazz Festival.

'Face guy of the county'

Sossamon said he is confident Animal Services is on the right track and he continues to meet regularly with Public Safety Director Mike Nickerson to solidify new and existing policies to increase efficiency.

He hopes to present to the board either Oct, 25 or early next month a proposal to hire a veterinarian to temporarily manage that department.

He is pleased the county was able to get much of the heavy lifting on the budget done before the recent first public hearing so there were no surprises at the last minute.

The county, he said, has cut about half its workforce and he is not sure there is any wiggle room left to lay off more people without compromising services.

His challenge after this 2013 budget is over is to start almost immediately on the following year seeking untapped revenue sources. He will meet with his leadership committee to discuss strategy.

"We'll take about a month breather after this one is put to bed and then start on the next year," he said. "We're down about 50 percent employees. So now we will look for ways to increase revenue and maintain services with no tax increases."

Sossamon said he didn't want to dip into reserves to balance this most recent budget, but there was no time left to explore any other avenues.

Sossamon said he also wants to roll out a countywide stormwater management plan that will better protect area roads and address flooding concerns made evident from recent storms.

To facilitate that, county commissioners recently transitioned the county's stormwater management department under the Department of Public Works.

Sossamon said a county administrator's job is more than hanging out in the office, shuffling papers and meeting with staffers.

It's getting out in the community and connecting with people, he said. To that end, he has spoken to numerous community and civic groups.

"I'm the face guy of the county," he said.

And Sossamon shares at least one attribute with his predecessor. He refuses to let negativity rule him and won't engage in verbal battles.

"Lose your temper, lose the argument," he said. "My wife calls me an eternal optimist. I'll look for ways to make things happen."

'He's enjoying himself'

County Commissioner Dave Russell said he is impressed so far with Sossamon, especially with his initial response to problems when he took the top spot.

"He didn't come on like a bull in a china shop," Russell said. "He's come in engaged with various departments in depth. He hasn't been terribly outspoken on any issue. At this point in time I think what he's doing is forming a game plan."

Russell said he believes Sossamon and his management team handled the animal services firestorm successfully and didn't overreact to any of the subsequent county audit findings of department inefficiencies.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he enjoys talking with Sossamon and was pleased he took the time to familiarize himself with the county and the issues.

Adkins said Sossamon came in 100 days ago and inherited a far different situation than former administrator Hamilton.

"When Hamilton came in 2008, government was big and he had to do some drastic cutting," Adkins said. "The county was bloated.

Hamilton was forced to make several employee cuts, which affected morale. Adkins said. By the time Sossamon got here, much of that was done.

"He's a people person," Adkins said. "He gets out, he takes trips with department heads and divisions. He looks over their divisions. He's enjoying himself." (352) 544-5290

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