By LISA MACNEIL
Last week, we ended our coverage of the Dec. 18, 2019 Interlocal meeting with Commissioner Steve Champion concerned about bus stops on major roadways with speed limits of 55 MPH, such as US Highway 41.
Champion asked after recounting a long traffic backup resulting from a bus stop on 41, “Why can’t (the buses) turn off onto the (secondary) road. Why stop the bus on any road that’s got a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit? Something’s got to change there.”
Gus Guadagnino commented that an area of Spring Hill Drive slated for future sidewalk construction serves an industrial park does not have a turning lane.
School Zones, Bus Stop Safety and Transportation Considerations
School Zones are regulated by Florida Statute, Florida Administrative Code and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Speed Zone Manual. Regulations were changed in 2017 and 2018, mandating flashing lights for all school zones in the state. Schools signage and speed limits are to be in compliance by July 1, 2023, and will be updated with the next roadway resurfacing.
County Engineer Scott Herring reported that older signs will be replaced and updated where applicable as the flashing lights are installed, because it is more cost-effective to update all the signage in a school zone, rather than separately.
Brighter and more numerous street lights and enhancing roadway markings around school zones were suggested to improve the safety of students. Commissioner John Allocco commented, “The safety of children should be a priority. But not every answer is a government answer.” Allocco suggested that students walking in school zones could use bicycle lights on their backpacks to improve visibility. Further suggesting that schools could enter into a partnership with manufacturers and vendors of these lights, Allocco said, “It would make more sense than adding hundreds of thousands of dollars of lights … because then the (bicycle light) is with the student, it’s not just at the school bus stop.”
Allocco suggested the personal flashing light be added to the school district’s “back-to-school” supply list.
Traffic in school zones is further aggravated by parents and guardians picking up and dropping off students, some of whom do not qualify for busing. J.D. Floyd Elementary was cited as an example of congestion and backup, with a long line of vehicles queuing along the right-of way. BOCC Chairman Jeff Holcomb added that a new trend that didn’t exist when the school was built -- are the parents that are picking up and dropping off children for the security of door-to-door transportation.
Champion concurred with Holcomb, also adding that the school district is responsible for the policy of not offering busing for students living within a two-mile radius of the school. “When it comes to elementary or middle school kids -- I don’t want my kid walking a mile down Powell Road.”
Linda Prescott advised that, like the county, the school district has limited funds, and they would like to offer courtesy busing, especially for younger students, but hinted that there may be a penalty for doing so. (Prior to 2:04).
Superintendent John Stratton commented that the recently increased school impact fees will help JD Floyd elementary deal with their current traffic headaches, and possibly expand courtesy busing to the school.
Director of Transportation Ralph Leath reported that there are currently 3,100 bus stops in the county with 109 bus routes used to pick up students in a 2-3 hour timeframe.
Understanding the concerns of both the BOCC and school district, Leath explained that his department keeps safety in mind when planning bus stops and school zones.
Leath reported that during a recent study, his department found -- in one day, 70 motorists bypassed a bus “stop arm” - the apparatus that swings out a stop sign from the left and right sides of a stopped school bus to display a stop sign with flashing lights. Leath has considered adding a Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) deputy to buses in problem areas.
“If we could take (the buses) off the main roads, we would. Sometimes, it’s just not an option.”
Leath has a safety team that addresses concerns brought to his department. He cited changes that have been made as a result of issues brought to his attention, such as having a bus drive around a block to drop off “door side,” so students would not need to cross a busy street.
“Unfortunately moving a stop doesn’t make everyone happy,” Leath said, drawing chuckles from several members at the meeting.
Leath and his department will share information with the BOCC in the future to collaborate on issues brought to the agencies.
Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said that the HCSO strives to be data-driven, focusing on troubled spots, rather than deploying deputies where not needed.
Kay Hatch invited everyone at the table, Brooksville City Council, BOCC and HCSO to accompany the school district board on school visits in the future.
Reducing Healthcare Cost for School District Employees
County Administrator Jeff Rogers began by explaining that the county health insurance fund is self-funded, whereas the school district is not. The BOCC and HCSO actually have their own respective healthcare clinics. Commissioner Steve Champion praised the clinic serving the BOCC, commenting that he was skeptical at first, but found himself very impressed with their service. Rogers suggested that the school district -- which is a standalone agency -- look into this configuration as well.
Gus Guadagnino commented that he had been in conversation with Pasco’s school district, which invited Hernando to visit their facility.
Commissioner John Allocco, who is a healthcare professional, and familiar with the system and how it interfaces with the insurance industry summarized; “Healthcare is a benefit. We have to make sure we’re able to give that benefit, and it’s the most cost-effective. It’s only cost-effective if it’s used. There’s always going to be pushback, but in the end, you have to incentivize use of it. If (employees) don’t use it, it’s going to push your costs up … in order for it to work, you have to de-incentivize going outside the system.”
Allocco stressed the goal is not to force employees out of a choice, but as a public agency, the goal is to “be the best stewards of every tax dollar that comes in … that’s what it’s really about.”
Jimmy Lodato of the School District asked about the feasibility of “piggybacking” with the BOCC’s plan (or other agency), to which Rogers explained, that if the numbers worked, and the cost does not wind up rising over time, as well as access to services not being hindered, then the joining of the school district to another agency would work. However multiple factors are to be considered and would need to be investigated.
Nienhuis remarked that the HCSO is currently at 90% capacity in their clinic.
Community Swimming Pool
Seeing that Citrus county has closed two community pools that weren’t governed by Homeowners’ Associations, Hernando has no plans to build or maintain a community pool.