By LISA MACNEIL
At the regular meeting of February 12, 2019, the Board of County Commissioners decided to hold regular planning meetings to discuss upcoming agenda items, and to review items affecting the budget on a regular basis. The first Planning Workshop was held on March 5, 2019 at the Hernando County Utilities Building.
The Planning Workshop is open to the public; however, there is no public input.
Acting County Administrator Jeff Rogers opened the meeting by saying the goal of the meeting is for open discussion between commissioners and senior staff that were also present. “To have discussion, spur creativity and thoughts about these topics.” Rogers explained that there will be a summary at the end of this and future meetings, and some items added to future BOCC regular meeting agendas.
Rogers first addressed the County’s Strategic Plan, which was developed 5-6 years ago, and is updated annually. The annual update also includes recognition of accomplishments during the year. The first topic Rogers raised to board and staff is the Strategic Plan, and if it should be reviewed since some topics such as the funding of Sensitive Lands may no longer be relevant.
Planning Director Ron Pianta said that while no other preserves are expected to be purchased, that the county is still responsible for the maintenance of such lands, some of which are open to the public. The county also receives funding from the state for Land Management obligations. “Our goal is not to expand the budget … but to maintain what we have.”
Commissioner John Allocco suggested a revision to the Strategic Plan, perhaps instituting a two-tier system, the additional tier to include lower-priority objectives and initiatives.
Mission, Vision, and Values – Hernando County’s Style and Character
Commissioner Steve Champion began the discussion on the future growth of Hernando County. “I don’t want this county to look like Pasco. There’s going to be growth, we have a great county and people want to live here, but we have to be careful with the growth. We have to be careful of 40 to 50-foot lots, and some of the other stuff coming in to the county making us look more like Tampa and Pasco (county). I don’t think that’s an attractive future.”
Pianta reported that the priority of the 2040 Comprehensive Plan is to “maintain the character and feel and rural lifestyle of the rural area.” The challenge is to guard against “uncontained sprawl, which changes that feel.” The 2040 plan aims to guide that new growth occurs where there is existing infrastructure, and occur first in the urban areas where smaller lots and higher density should be.
Pianta added that the higher density growth is important because, typically, low-density growth does not pay for necessary services. “It does on the higher end of the scale,” said Pianta. “Very expensive homes typically are paying for the services that they’re getting. At the lower end of the scale, you’re subsidizing those homes. The tax dollars they generate do not cover the services they use.”
While Champion agreed with the practice of developing urban areas first, he still questions the amount of taxes paid in rural areas. Champion reports paying more than $5000 in property taxes with only electricity and the road on which he lives as the only services maintained by the county. “We’ve done it before, and we’ve done it with the rural atmosphere … but to double our taxes in 14 years is just plain unacceptable.”
Pianta believes the tiered Strategic Plan will aid in the growth process, providing a plan while guiding priorities. “We’re discussing growth and what kind of growth pays for itself.” Pianta added that the planning department wants to meet the expectations of the board, and not vary significantly when it comes to planning and zoning issues.
“I think all five of us agree with property rights,” John Allocco said, and asked the board where the ‘cutoff’ should be when balancing private property rights with the Comprehensive Plan and the general plan for growth for the county, as well as the financial model for the county.
Allocco added that there is very little apartment-style housing available to offer to professionals who may want to move into Hernando County. Those with salaries above the median level who may not want to maintain a single-family home have few choices.
“I think the worst thing is to provide jobs for these people, and have them live in another county, because they’re not going to spend the money here.”
Commissioner Wayne Dukes spoke about the changing demographic of home-buyers. Millenials and other younger buyers are seeking smaller homes. “That’s how we wound up with the 40-foot lots. We have to be cognizant that it’s going to be a ‘mixed bag.’ There are people (for which) the house is a place to sleep in, and that’s it.”
Chairman Jeff Holcomb thinks his district (which borders Powell Road to the north, County Line Road to the south, Mariner Blvd to the west, and Spring Lake Highway to the east) would be an ideal area for smaller lots and denser population. “It doesn’t make sense to have it in 10 acres off Kettering Road.” Holcomb also mentioned that home builders aren’t building these types of homes and developments at the present time, which leads to the question “When does government get involved?”
Allocco answered that the relationship with the Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z), Board of County Commissioners and builders is key. “This commission isn’t excited about quarter-acre lots in the middle of the woods. They would like them to be much closer to a major (traffic) artery, where we’re attracting people. Because we’re asking for a variance at this point, and that’s where government comes in. If we’re going to give variances, then they should be well-thought-out, the people that are going to apply for those variances should have a ‘fair shake,’ they should know what we think as a board, so they’re not wasting their time.”
The balance of property rights of existing owners will always be a factor in future building considerations. The simplest example was given by Commissioner Steve Champion, who said, “When you change zoning next door to me, you’re affecting my property rights. But in Spring Hill, and denser areas? Of course that’s where those places should be.”
Champion also mentioned that new regulations on septic systems, and Septic to Sewer conversions, and other requirements of the Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP), (which mostly encompasses the more densely populated Spring Hill and Weeki Wachee areas) constitute increased and additional expenses for prospective builders.
Champion went on to say that he dislikes subsidies and “anything where the government is pushing for something.” According to Champion, builders and ancillary businesses are private entities, and if there is money to be made, they will come to Hernando county and find a way to make it.
Speaking to the power of the BOCC, Commissioner Wayne Dukes reminded the board and staff that a development was turned down by the board, which had been approved by P&Z. “So we do have that authority, but luckily we don’t use it against people very often.”
Commissioner John Mitten added to the discussion that the members of the Planning Department are trained professionals, and the Board of County Commissioners is comprised of members of several professions, none of which are required to be planning or engineering. “So the dynamic is messy at times, yet, somehow, it’s quintessentially American self-rule.” Mitten said that the Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use map should be dictating the complexion of a particular area. Mitten added, “I think we have to allow for market forces to activate what that looks like… inside those zones.”
Mitten acknowledges that impartiality is difficult to attain, and no matter how hard the government works to achieve impartiality, there will be a conspiracy theorist out there. Mitten recalled a recent conversation he had with someone who believed George Washington collaborated with the British to bring about the War of Independence to benefit the British.
“There is no way to totally rid this idea of special interest behind the scenes, specifically with rezoning… but openness and predictability should be in the language as much as possible.”
The Comprehensive plan, Future Land use and other zoning items are expected to be top items in future planning meetings, as they are in regular BOCC meetings.
Economic Development Manager Valerie Pianta gave an overview of her department and its functions. The Economic Development department consists of two full-time staff and one part-time admin. This department reports directly to the county administrator. Economic Development has strategic partnerships with Brooksville Tampa Regional Airport (BKV) and the Tourism Department, which assist Economic Development with trade shows, business visits and recruitment visits.
Economic Development’s budget is $280,000 of which $103,000 is operating budget and $57,000 is for marketing and promotion. Pianta reported that 49% of her duties fall under business retention and expansion, about 24% is under recruitment, and everything else is community programs, marketing, general business administration and entrepreneurship.
Pianta reports 9 new companies in the county since 2014, and 24 expansions of existing companies. Economic Development has also helped the PACE Center for Girls secure a site in the county for their school, and created the Speculative Building incentive program. Additionally, the department’s website has undergone a redesign. All of this has resulted in 860 new jobs, 572 retained jobs and 821,000 square feet of new or absorbed building space. As of this writing, Pianta reports having 19 open projects, which if closed will result in 851 jobs and 450,000 square feet of building space.
Commissioner John Allocco said he would like Pianta to reach out to himself and the other commissioners with her success stories as they happen.
The commission spent some time on the subject of incentives to attract businesses to Hernando County.
Alloco asked, “What were the key reasons for these companies to choose Hernando County over Hillsborough or Pasco, or another state?” He continued, “Then capitalize on those. I had a conversation two years ago about true, slab-ready. Lets invest our money into things Hernando County retains such as infrastructure, but make that infrastructure so attractive, as far as speed. What’s most important is how fast I can get a Certificate of Occupancy (CO) and do my business.”
Allocco stated he would like to see slab-ready infrastructure where a business can open in 9 months, rather than having to wait 18 months, “then have to worry about how many trees you have on your property, or not having utilities because it wasn’t in the plan.” Allocco said “If we’re consistent with what we are good at and what we can provide, that gives the predictability of the business environment.”
Given the high rate of new business failure, Allocco thinks focussing on existing business expansion should take precedence over new business development.
Commissioner Steve Champion agrees with Alloco, adding that the reason he lives in Hernando County is due to the low cost of living, and low taxes, which could not be sustainable in an incentive-heavy commerce culture.
Champion added that Hernando County has a reputation for being difficult to business with. “Difficult to get COs, difficult to get permits. We should bend over backwards … That is the biggest complaint we have.”
Champion also expressed impatience with excessive regulation “We’ve rolled back some regulation, but there’s still massive regulation in this county that’s above what the state calls for. Why does (Hernando) require a license to put tile down. The state doesn’t require it. That is restricting business. That is restricting future growth.”
Physical attractiveness and the Unsafe Buildings Program are other areas Champion would like to see highlighted, as the drive from Pasco to Hernando via US 41 “doesn’t look attractive.”
Allocco has been hearing different things from the business community. “I’ve been thoroughly pleased with the responses I’ve been getting lately … in 2019 and the end of 2018, businesses are much happier in dealing with Hernando County than Pasco County.”
Returning to the subject of incentives, Commissioner John Mitten advised the board that incentives are more than cash and tax breaks. “Even in providing infrastructure, if utilities is asked to provide infrastructure so that something is ‘slab-ready’ … they’re taxing their users for use in the future. So there’s different levels of what we would consider an ‘incentive,’ and what are we comfortable with as far as investing taxpayer money in the future.”
The board concluded that Hernando is not to be one of Amazon’s many homes. Pianta said, “It’s important to understand who we are, and who we’re not.”
In the incentive budget is approximately $1.17million, and encumbered is $1.13-million, so as of 2026, there will be around $40,000 for incentives.
Valerie Pianta advised, “We’ll have to make a decision if we want to continue with the incentive ordinance that we have on the books today. They are driven by job creation … and the (incentives) aren’t given in advance.” Aside from cash incentives, Pianta said “These incentives, and impact fees and building permit fee incentives also, is another big one that people are very interested in. These don’t make a bad deal good, they make a good deal better.”
Sales Tax for Public Safety and Capital Improvements
Hernando County Fire / Rescue (HCFR) Chief Scott Hechler spoke to the necessity of a new radio system for communications between fire and rescue personnel and law enforcement. Hechler described communications in fire service as important as bullet-proof vests for Law Enforcement. The current radio system is at the end of its life-cycle. Though the equipment is necessary, current budget issues have the county seeking creative funding.
Estimated to cost $14-million, a sales tax increase was proposed to fund the radio equipment, as well as other, unmentioned capital improvements.
Acting County Administrator Jeff Rogers told the board that the steep, yet necessary expenditure would require some diversification of revenue. “If we don’t diversify revenue, then continue to ask for those (property taxpayers) to pay for everything … It’s another revenue source.” Rogers concluded by saying if funding continues in the usual way, the 2021 budget will require a few more million.
Commissioner Steve Champion said that he would only support additional sales tax if property taxes were reduced. While the reduction in property tax cannot be linked to the increase in sales tax by statute, there are ways to accomplish both.
The board will continue to look into this method of funding. “Complexity breeds confusion,” Commissioner John Mitten said, adding that if the concept should go to the public for a vote, it should be very clear-cut and well-explained.
Commissioner John Allocco has personal experience in seeking a venue in Hernando County to accommodate over 300 people in one building. As the former Chairperson of the Hernando County Republican Party, and father of two children planning weddings, Allocco expressed his concern in comfortable venues for large crowds not being readily available.
Allocco asked if Hernando County was capable of providing a venue for conventions, or if the county was not interested at all.
Hernando’s only venue with a capacity for large gatherings, the Palace Grand, closed in 2017 due to sinkhole activity, and remains closed with an uncertain future.
Parks and Recreation Future Goals
Commissioner John Allocco asked if private developments would have their own private parks and recreation within their developments, of if the county would expand their recreation venues currently in place.
The board is in agreement that closing parks is not ideal. Commissioner Steve Champion commented that two boat ramps were out of service during the past weekend, causing ‘a mess.’
Impact fees were discussed in the growth and upkeep of parks and recreation venues.
Also discussed was the topic of building a public pool. Commissioner Wayne Dukes recalled that the subject came up several years ago, and was abandoned. “It costs a lot of money,” Dukes said.
The discussion continued for a considerable time, and the subject is expected to receive more attention from the board throughout the year.
Septic to Sewer / Waste Water Infrastructure
Gordon Onderdonk reported on the conversion of existing neighborhoods having onsite septic to centralized sewer. A state-funded $13-million grant comes with a 20% cost share, which sums to $2.6-million from Hernando County.
Onderdonk reported that a payback analysis revealed that approximately 6% of that 20% could be paid for by the utility.
Commissioner Steve Champion asked why Rainbow Woods, which was recently totally repaved, was not converted to sewer at the time of the road work. Onderdonk replied that the timing of the funding was not in line with the timing of the repaving project.
A topic that’s been on the board agenda in the past, Commissioner John Allocco commented that any septic to sewer conversion is performed because there is no other choice. The cost to the homeowner could rise from approximately $12 per month to around $40.
Onderdonk reported that the state is sending the county $500,000 for a feasibility study to engage stakeholders to decide the best remediation plan for the existing septic systems going forward. The study has become part of the Wastewater Master Plan. This topic is expected to come before the board in the next 1-2 months.
Brought to the meeting by Commissioner John Allocco, because the top two items for cuts during a budget problem are libraries and parks. “I think it’s a discredit to our libraries right now to just be called ‘a library,’” Allocco said, listing several services libraries currently provide over the lending of books. “I think we need to be proactive in rebranding the system so maybe the community knows what it is.”
Allocco’s hope is that at tax time, taxpayers will recognize that the facilities with the stacks of books for other things such as providers of music programs, early literacy and other educational programs. For some individuals and families, the local library is the only source of Internet access. Allocco also cited foreign language education, and tax assistance as other services that local libraries provide.
Allocco suggests bringing the rebranding idea to library staff with the question, “If you were to market this better to the community, what would you do? How do we let (the public) know what can be done in your buildings, in your system so that the community uses it more and understands what a benefit it is to the county?”
“Nobody wants a huge, overbearing government, but they do want some services.”
Commissioner Wayne Dukes offered the idea that the rebranding be left to the community, with a prize awarded to the winning idea.
Acting County Administrator Jeff Rogers added that he’s been in meetings with library leadership, and they are looking into ways to engage the community.
Allocco suggested that grant dollars might be available if the library is considered more than just a library. “If we’re trailblazing in a way that takes some of the pressure off the taxpayers, I’m more for that than trailblazing in a way that has the taxpayers spending more money.”
Rogers suggested integration and partnerships with local schools to enrich students’ exposure and educational opportunities.