The Hernando County Legislative Delegation was held Monday, December 6, 2021. This is the meeting where local officials meet with state officials to request changes or additions to law, and request state funding for county projects. This meeting was attended by State Representatives Blaise Ingoglia and Ralph Massulo. Senator Wilton Simpson was absent from this meeting.
Next week, we will cover the requests and testimony by non-elected officials; Dr. Timothy Beard, President of Pasco-Hernando State College, Elke Cumming of Gulf Coast JFCS (Jewish Family and Community Services), Chris Lemon of the Pace Center for Girls and Ashley Hofecker of Mid Florida Community Services, Inc.
Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO)
The first to address the representatives was Sheriff Al Nienhuis, who requested a three-part plan (Senate Bill (SB) 190 and House Bill (HB) 95) which, if enacted, will charge an individual who supplies drugs to another individual — and the usage of that drug causes death — with murder in the first degree.
Before these bills were sponsored, on February 28, 2017, Isaac Troy Lemons was charged with third-degree murder in the death of Dylan Thornton.
27-year-old Lemons allegedly supplied a synthetic drug called “Flakka” to Thornton in 2015. Thornton reportedly took the drug during his 18th birthday celebration, removed his clothing and ran into a wooded area. He was later found dead.
Lemons’ first trial ended in a mistrial in August of 2021. A new trial is pending.
Included in the Senate and House Bills is legislation to enhance charges on the sale of illicit substances within 1000 feet of a drug treatment facility or recovery home, commonly known as a “Sober Home.”
Nienhuis explained that enhancements already exist when selling illicit substances within 1000 feet of a school, daycare or church, and explained that the addition of “A drug abuse treatment center is arguably just as important, if not more important to prevent people from distributing drugs than those areas (where) people are trying to recover.”
Nienhuis said that typically, methamphetamine is not considered a drug that causes overdoses, however, usage can cause an elevated heart rate, and other physical responses, which can lead to death from an underlying medical condition. Methamphetamine will be added to the list of drugs usually causing overdoses, such as heroin and other opiates.
Massulo and Ingoglia had some questions for Nienhuis after the initial description of the house and senate bills, Ingoglia asking first, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” Neinhuis stressed the importance of keeping substances away from vulnerable individuals still in fragile points of their sobriety. Ingoglia said, “It takes a special kind of scum to do that.”
Nienhuis concluded his time by presenting Ingoglia a “Friend of the Sheriff” award from the Florida Sheriff’s Association for his work on a problem with Department of Transportation legislation last year. The specific problem was not stated at the meeting.
City of Brooksville
Mayor Pat Brayton brought four projects that the city of Brooksville will need funding for in 2022. The major projects include stormwater conveyance improvements. The city will need a tractor equipped with a rear-mounted knuckle boom, a mower, and a spider excavator. The work is currently being done with manual tools such as weed-eaters and regular grass mowers.
The city’s request for $312,500 from the state will fund half of the $625,000 needed for this equipment.
The Critical Facility Power Backup plan affects six lift stations throughout the city. The generators at these lift stations are beyond their “life expectancy.” The city also has lift stations that do not have generators.
Lift stations literally lift wastewater to a higher point so it can again flow by gravity, or be pumped under pressure directly to the treatment plant. Without power, damage to the station can occur causing damage to homes and businesses as well as producing sanitation concerns.
The six new dedicated generators and one portable generator is estimated at $632,000. The city’s request from the state is for $316,000.
Other requests from the city are for parks infrastructure improvements, expected to cost $375,000, a $187,500 request from the state, and a water reclamation project estimated at $545,000, with $272,500 coming from the state.
Board of County Commissioners
Ingoglia presented a local bill which dissolves the Hernando County Port Authority, and appoints the Board of County Commissioners as the Port Authority. No one came forth for public comment, and the bill was not debated. The bill passed unanimously, with two votes, Ingoglia and Massulo.
County Administrator Jeff Rogers began by describing the “shovel-ready” project which will rehabilitate the roadways at the Brooksville – Tampa Bay Regional Airport’s (BKV) rail park, as well as extend an existing roadway. The cost of the project is $2.9 million and the county is able to match $919,000.
The county also seeks to rehabilitate an inactive runway at BKV so that it can be used for airport operations and maintenance. The request from the state is $2 million, with a county match of $1.8 million. Rogers also told the representatives that a new aircraft maintenance facility is expected to be built nearby, adding 20 high-paying jobs.
A central fueling station for critical services was back in the list of requests from the county. This facility will fuel first responder vehicles and provide fuel for generators in case of a widespread power outage. In an October BOCC meeting, Deputy Administrator Tobey Phillips said that this request was not granted previously, so the county increased their match. Rogers asked that the $1.3 million project be funded by a state grant of $980,000 matched by the county with over $300,000.
Hernando County School District
Chairman Gus Guadagnino spoke first, expressing gratitude for the state grant that will be used to fund the Dr. Dennis Wilfong Center for Success, expected to break ground in 2022.
Superintendent John Stratton thanked the representatives as well, adding that the education in the county is “in a much better place.”
Stratton’s first request was a change in the state statute language that governs sparsity. Sparsity funds are available to schools with a sparse population of students, according to a statutory designation.
Stratton reported that because of growth in the county, the school district will lose over $2 million as they will no longer be eligible for this designation. The original request is a change to the language in the law to reflect that sparsity funds become a permanent change in the law rather than an adjustment to appropriations for the school board each year.
After some discussion, it was clarified that the school district was asking for the population threshold to be adjusted so they don’t lose sparsity funds. Massulo added, “I have a question about the sparsity funds, not just for Hernando County, but statewide as we continue to grow. More children are going to be coming here, and that’s what we want, we want our school districts to grow. I think it’s somewhat onerous that you would lose all that money immediately.”
Massulo commented on mediating the sudden drop in funding with a “runway” approach, slowing down the decrease. He asked if the school board had looked into any other funding, or spoken to any bill sponsors. Ingoglia stated that he thinks the easiest way to solve the issue is with an amendment to the Education Omnibus.
Stratton reported that there is currently a bill introduced to decrease the busing radius for students from two miles to one mile. The district is asking for the state to fully fund student transportation, which are now funded 50% by the state.
The district is also requesting $2,500,000 for the new Dr. Dennis Wilfong Success Center. This amount is to cover increased construction costs.
Stratton stated also that the school board fully endorses the current effort to locate a mental health facility in Citrus County, Florida. Currently, children under the age of 18 involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act are taken to a facility in Ocala or Orlando.
At the conclusion of Stratton’s time, Ingoglia said, “I do have another question about my favorite subject with you.”
On September 2, 2020, a photo of a presentation slide containing a quote regarding “Black Lives Matter” surfaced from a Hernando High School U.S. Government classroom, sparking a School Board investigation based on the concern that Dr. Christina Torres-Velazquez was sharing her personal political views and beliefs to students. Torres-Velazquez has been cleared of the allegations by the school district.
Ingolia questioned the outcome of the school district’s investigation. Stratton responded that the matter went to the state level Ethics Commission, who turned it away. He also reported that the matter is still under investigation with the Commissioner’s Office.
Doug Chorvat, Clerk of Court
Clerk of Court Doug Chorvat thanked the representatives for legislation passed last year that “will make significant progress in addressing our funding issues and stabilizing our services.”
SB 838, signed into law last year authorizes Clerks to maintain responsible statewide reserves, carry forward certain revenues year-to-year and promote payment plans. Chorvat reported that “People pay their obligations and reduce driver’s license suspensions.”
This year, the Clerk’s office continues to work on their revenue structure, and reducing license suspensions. Chorvat described his “2022 At Your Service” steps that will focus on four areas. First, the department will fulfill a backlog of court cases by looking for funding through the Clerk of Court pandemic recovery plan. These priorities are captured in (SB)552 and (HB) 397.
To increase and improve revenue acquisition, the bills seek to “establish a process for clerks to submit quarterly requests for reimbursement from the state for the non-fee services for mental health and domestic injunctions, help reduce drivers’ license suspensions by further standardizing monthly payment plans and initial down payment amounts to make participation easier and more affordable, realign revenue sources by allowing clerks to retain and redirect more stable fees and revenues to better support the court related services that are so reliant on traffic citations.”