Confusion, misunderstanding, and misinformation are fueling residents’ impatience with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) as they seek funding to correct problems in South Brooksville. Several residents have made complaints that they were not offered funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant, which has currently entered phase 2.
Blighted homes in the community were the top concern of residents who spoke during the Citizens’ Comments segment at the June 14, 2022 meeting. Most who spoke about the issues seemed unaware that the board made the decision to allocate funding to South Brooksville during the May 24, 2022 regular meeting, although the exact projects and allocation amounts were not settled.
Assistant Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church Clarence Green was the first to speak, and began, “We the concerned citizens and clergy are here today to ascertain why South Brooksville citizens were disenfranchised from receiving any funding from phase one and phase two of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021 and 2022, totaling almost 40 million dollars between the two phases … We walk the streets of South Brooksville and we find it hard to believe our representatives could find no funding for the least of the citizens.”
Chairman Steve Champion interjected at this point, stating that at the May 24th meeting, South Brooksville improvements were moved to the top of the project list, after receiving the latest disbursement of $18,000,000. He later answered at the conclusion of Citizen’s Comments that South Brooksville has been a personal top priority for him since his election in 2016.
Commissioners at the May 24, 2022 BOCC meeting approved a spending plan for the South Brooksville Qualified Census Tract, Affordable and Workforce Housing, and water/sewer improvements in Tangerine Estates. There were no specific allocations approved during that meeting, and the matter is expected to come before the board in the near future.
Green listed the projects aloud that were approved during that meeting, noting the remainder for South Brooksville is approximately $5.5-million.
Carl Howland of the Simba Kai Martial Arts Institute asked the board why his business and others have not been offered a portion of the ARPA funds.
Twin Lakes resident Everett Sesler commented that culvert work should be considered in that area. He also provided photos that he had taken of homes in South Brooksville, showing various states of disrepair. “But I have noticed new construction, renovation, remodels on Bell, Howell, Oak, Main street. Why are these [South Brooksville] homes like this?”
“Ask the homeowners,” Champion commented. “It’s their responsibility.”
“And they’re being penalized and taxed because of the conditions of these homes,” Sesler said.
“They should be torn down,” Champion said.
“Exactly. They’re met with resistance in your zoning, your permitting, all of your offices. Why is it this side of town (City of Brooksville) can get new homes, remodels, reconstruction, but [South Brooksville] is going to crap?”
Sesler moved on to the subject of business in the county, and which ones received ARPA funding. “I notice a lot of businesses thriving here in Hernando County, and those businesses tend to be linked with your Brooksville Vision Foundation. I guess they’re the only people who can thrive economically in this county,” he said as he displayed minutes from a 2015 Brooksville Vision Foundation (BVF), highlighted and annotated to show members of the Brooksville Vision Foundation and their connections to real estate and engineering firms and Brooksville City Council. “I don’t want carte blanche, I just want to be treated the same,” Sesler said, concluding his input.
None of the commissioners addressed Howland’s and Sesler’s comments directly but did answer that everyone has an equal opportunity for funding, but residents and businesses must go through an application process.
South Brooksville resident Latrishian Stewart said during her comments that not all residents, including herself are aware of when public meetings are held. “I never received a notice, a letter, or anything about a meeting. I’m grateful that one of the representatives of South Brooksville got out and did some groundwork so that I would be able to come and voice my opinion about how South Brooksville is not a priority …”
Stewart agrees that it is the homeowners’ responsibility for maintaining and repairing their homes, but countered that South Brooksville residents face difficulty when applying for permits. “I have seen homes burned down to the ground, where [sic] the homeowners come to get permits to rebuild their homes … it’s always a ‘no’, there’s always a roadblock, it’s always something else why the residents of South Brooksville cannot improve themselves. We’re not all here begging for anything, we do want what’s rightfully ours, just like everyone else.”
A recent community meeting held in South Brooksville was also attended by residents of Spring Hill and Hernando Beach. Diane Liptak of Hernando Beach said the meeting “really distressed” her. According to Liptak, the meeting was held on City of Brooksville property, and she reported that nearby basketball courts were enclosed by six-foot wire fencing, with affixed signs that read, “No trespassing by order of BOCC.” According to Liptak, the court sits on a manmade swale full of [arsenic] contaminated water, snakes and mosquitoes. “All in the middle of this neighborhood that’s not getting any funding for anything.” The Hernando Sun was not able to verify the existence of a contaminated area before press time. Liptak also asked the board how much the area has received in impact fees.
Spring Hill resident Brad Benson also attended the meeting and appealed to the commissioners’ sense of appearing attractive to voters. “It really does not look good. And you know we’ve had this Republican leadership here, one would think that our leadership in the Republican party would be trying to gain some of the votes of some of these people here by helping them out, but they don’t.”
James Holland of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard stated that he’s lived in the area since 1950. He questioned the boundaries of South Brooksville. “Where is South Brooksville? It comes down Martin Luther King (Blvd.) to Broad Street. How do we describe South Brooksville? Does it go all the way out to Powell Road?”
Champion remarked later that in 2016 after he was elected, there was a battle between Brooksville’s City Council and the BOCC regarding the annexation of properties in South Brooksville, not mentioning specifics.
In a nutshell, the city annexed five properties: Grace World Outreach Church, Inc (20366 Cortez Blvd, Brooksville), St. Anthony’s Catholic Church (20428 Cortez Blvd, Brooksville, FL 34601); the property of Samuel C. Griffin and Kellie Griffin (Cortez and Mildred Ave. South); the Hernando County Housing Authority off of Barnett Rd; and the Brooksville Christian Church (6197 Broad St, Brooksville, FL 34601). The county opposed the annexation and sued the city claiming that the annexations were invalid as the owners themselves did not sign the annexation petitions. They also accused the city of geographical racism in their choice of property annexations. Judge Donald Scaglione ruled in favor of the county. The city did file an appeal but lost.
Champion went on to admonish citizens he felt were spreading misinformation. “The misinformation that was just put on display here by some of the gaslighters, and I’m not talking about the community members … but [Liptak] and Benson, no offense, but I’ve got to call you out — you gaslight everything … you come here and you spread misinformation.”
He addressed the question of impact fees by stating that impact fees need to be used in the areas where they are collected. “Are there new buildings in South Brooksville? Not very many. And probably because we’re not doing anything about the falling-down houses. We’re not coordinating with the [City of Brooksville] to make sure it’s one neighborhood. I’d like to see it be one neighborhood one day, but the city needs to step up.”
He went on to caution South Brooksville residents about what annexation into the City of Brooksville would look like. “I would caution you to say you don’t want [to be annexed] … When you’re part of the city, you’re double-taxed. You talk about getting nothing for your money? You’ll get nothing for it.”
Champion concluded, “[Business funding] was open to everybody. Every business. Twice. Anyone could apply for it. If you applied for it, you got the money. Literally, it was that easy.”
County Administrator Jeff Rogers added that while the plans and appropriations for South Brooksville have yet to be finalized, the area is a priority for repair and revitalization. “It’s kind of like growing vegetables. What we’re doing right now is getting the soil ready… we’re planting these seeds now, and they’re going to come up and prosper here in the future …”