By LISA MACNEIL
County Commissioners heard from Hernando County School District (HCSD) liaison Jimmy Lodato during the October 11, 2021, regular Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting. At each meeting, elected officials have the opportunity to address the board without an agenda.
Lodato began by updating the board on the status of the future Dr. Dennis Wilfong Technology and Government Center. An architect and construction company has been selected, and the matter will be brought for approval during a future meeting. Lodato estimates that construction can begin in April 2022 and be completed by August 2023.
Next, Lodato addressed the topic of traffic backups onto right-of-ways as students are dropped off and picked up at area schools. He admitted that on two-lane roads there is not a lot of room for standing vehicles as they queue to enter school pickup areas. He expressed the desire of the school board to meet with the commissioners and involved departments to figure out by what mechanism the problem can be solved.
He stated that one of the district’s requests of the Legislative Delegation this year is to address the issue of students in a two-mile radius having to find their own way to school. “This is a dangerous situation,” Lodato said, attributing the congested areas to the increased number of vehicles in school pickup zones.
In 2014, area attorney Matt Foreman was the HCSD Chairperson who was able to get the bus limitation to a 1-mile radius for elementary school students. Lodato explained that later that year, the “Penny for Projects” referendum failed, and with that, the busing radius went back to 2 miles.
Lodato asked the board why the roads that are affected by the school traffic situation are still only two lanes. “I think we all fell a little short in doing what we need to do to widen the roads.”
Lodato stated that the reduction of impact fees has resulted in the district being unable to go forward with intended projects. “I’ve sat in front of you many times asking for these impact fees, and let you think I just pull the figure out of my head, but I am a person who is a businessman. I look at these things carefully. Now without the money that we needed from impact fees, we’re going to be short on many projects, such as the expansion of Weeki Wachee and Winding Waters to alleviate overpopulation at that school.”
Lodato went on to say that the “pointing of fingers” and involving politics over “doing the right thing” will hinder the school district as a whole, and the students attending school.
Commissioner John Allocco stated that the traffic issues were first introduced in an interlocal meeting two years ago. It was unclear if any solutions were discussed until now.
Commissioner Steve Champion, who has been the most vocal opponent of the district’s 1 mill tax increase, reiterated his dislike of the measure and the politics of the members of the school board. “I like you personally,” Champion began, “I don’t dislike any of the board members. I hate their politics. I hate their voting record. I hate that all five of you voted for a 20.32% tax increase. I don’t care if the voters voted the 1 mill through or not, you should stand on principle and vote against it.”
It was the HCSD’s unanimous approval of the 2021-22 budget to which Champion was referring. “Why didn’t you vote against it? I disagree with that, and I think most of the public does too. They’re going to know who these people are in 2022, and we’re going to replace them. Nothing personal.”
“You lied to the public. You’re saying it was only $20 a house, or $40 a house. It’s not. It was $900 for my business. It was $700 for my house.” A clearly irritated Champion concluded with, “Then you have the nerve to come up here about impact fees. I am shocked.”
Lodato countered, “But whose road is it? If it’s a county road, and we have a school there, why can’t you add a lane in there?”
“We did,” Champion said. “We added a lane at Powell and you have already exceeded it. We put a quarter-mile lane there.” Lodato replied that all schools have not had the extra turn lane added.
Lodato defended the district’s 1 mill increase that was passed by voters in 2020 by saying the half-cent sales tax passed in 2015 could only be spent on repair of schools, and by law can not be spent otherwise.
Reading from the September 24, 2021 issue of The Hernando Sun, Lodato said, “39.2% for Hernando County schools, but 35% for the General Fund, including law enforcement, but you don’t add the rest of it … 61% goes to the county. There are 3000 employees in the school district, more than you have here. It’s a greater responsibility. We have 23,000 kids.”
Revenues from the 1 mill HCSD increase are managed by an oversight committee.
Commissioner Beth Narverud suggested that when sidewalks are present, it is not dangerous for students to be dropped off and use the sidewalk to walk the remaining distance to school, provided there are adult attendants available to supervise. This would allow vehicles to move out of the queue faster. Narverud also suggested serpentine lots could be set up on school property, and even grassy lots to ease the single file congestion.
Narverud introduced the question of why textbooks are still not being reviewed by parents before adoption. Lodato invited her to address HCSD on the matter. Narverud then asked if the school board limited the amount of time in which parents could speak to 1 hour. Lodato answered that there was a policy in place that serves as a guideline, however, he stated that he wants to hear all parents in attendance.
Commissioner Jeff Holcomb stated that the traffic problem has existed for the past two decades. Addressing the issue of sidewalks, Holcomb, who serves on the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) said, “We have put our MPO dollars toward sidewalks at schools… between 10 and 20 million dollars, so don’t tell us we’re not caring about this. That sidewalk across from Powell (Middle School) is a million-dollar sidewalk. We can put kids on that sidewalk if they walk to school. We can’t put kids on that sidewalk if they’re being driven to school. That makes no sense.”
On the subject of impact fees, Holcomb said, “You were here in the room when the consultant said that impact fees are not for building buildings. They’re for planning, designing, engineering. Just because you have a 9 million dollar grant, it doesn’t mean you’re building a 9 million dollar building.”
Holcomb said, “I remember asking the superintendent, ‘What is your capital account’, and I think he said 2/3rds to 3/4s of that money is already earmarked every year — that’s where the problem is. You should have been building up a capital account since the last building was built … so when the time comes and you need that building, you’re ready to go. We’re not going to shrink the county. People are moving here every day.”
Lodato said that every administration has to deal with past promises that were never fulfilled. With respect to the school traffic issues, he said that the district is working with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO), taking into account each school’s traffic issues independently, and working on solutions.
Commissioner Wayne Dukes commented that the reason an official letter was sent to the HCSD as a whole was that the issues have been spoken about over the years, however never resolved.
In closing, Lodato said, “I’m here as a person who wants to help.” Champion interjected, “Answer will be ‘I need more money, more taxes.’ Every time.”
Lodato responded, “You say that every time. You act like you don’t raise taxes, but when property goes up to a certain value, I don’t see you reducing (taxes) down. You don’t say ‘Wait a minute, your home value was $280,000, now it’s $290,000? I’ll just give you the tax on $250,000.’ Because you can’t. You have infrastructure, there are certain things you have to do and certain responsibilities that (the county has) and (the school district has) … so we can’t live with zero funds. If you keep going with what you have at this time, you’re going to go backward because your dollar’s not going to be worth anything.”
Commissioner John Allocco ended the discussion by suggesting that what schools have learned during the pandemic lockdown during the 2020 school year could be helpful to reducing traffic at schools. Remote learning could be applied, perhaps for high schools, perhaps to junior and senior levels, perhaps part-time, alternating with in-person learning.
Traffic would at least be reduced at high schools.