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Sheriff Prendergast anticipates making $7.5 million budget request to county commission

Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast is getting ready to ask county leaders for another several million dollars to bolster his agency’s upcoming budget.

Prendergast told the Chronicle Editorial Board Wednesday, April 13, his staff is finalizing next fiscal year’s finances for submittal June 1 to start discussions with the board of county commissioners in July.

In the meantime, the sheriff expects his budget ask to be around $7.5 million to help fund more deputies, additional support staff, a body-worn-camera system, and competitive salaries.

If measures aren’t taken soon, Prendergast said, the county’s in danger of falling behind its crime rate.

“What we have right now is one fragile thing, more fragile than an Easter egg, and if we break it, the flood gates will open up,” he said. “We can no longer continue to do more with less ... I need your help.”

With a roster of 220 sworn deputies covering Citrus County’s estimated U.S. Census population of 158,083, Prendergast said his agency can provide one deputy per 718 citizens.

This level of service, the sheriff said, is “drastically” underneath the national average of 2.4 law enforcement officers per 1,000 inhabitants, with 51 of 67 Florida counties having higher ratios.

“We have to position ourselves better to serve our citizens in the future,” Prendergast said, “not only for just the here and now, but prepare for the growth that we see in every community across Citrus County.”

Prendergast said the sheriff’s office needs 42 deputies to reach the national standard of coverage, but his agency can’t equip such a surge to its ranks because of supply-chain issues and the country’s 8.5 percent inflation rate driving up prices.

Area law enforcement academies, Prendergast noted, would also have trouble turning out such a high number of trained cadets in time.

“At a bare minimum,” the sheriff would like to add between 20 and 22 deputies this year.

Prendergast said those sworn employees would be split across the positions of eight patrol deputies, six marine unit deputies, four traffic unit deputies, a sergeant over the body-worn camera program, a special operations lieutenant, and two Behavioral Health Unit detectives.

This doesn’t count the extra civilian staff Prendergast said he’ll need to support the additional deputies, a body-camera program, and the added demands on human resources, fleet maintenance, finance and information technology.

At his last meeting with the Chronicle Editorial Board in December, according to prior reports, Prendergast said it could cost $4.3 million in the first year to add 22 sworn and 10 unsworn positions to the sheriff’s office.

However, impacts from the latest legislative session and nationwide cost increases are forcing the sheriff to aim higher in his upcoming budget request.

Florida representatives and senators in March OK’d the state’s 2022 budget, which proposes to increase the minimum pay for state law enforcement officers to $50,000 on July 1.

State workers under the proposed budget, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to approve, will also see a 5.38 percent pay increase across the board, and won’t make less than $15 an hour.

“That’s my competition,” Prendergast said. “The state’s not giving us a dime to help us bridge the gap between where we are and where the state’s going to be on July 1.”

Prendergast said a new Citrus County deputy will make $44,661 a year if they work every holiday and clock in a lot of overtime, but the “real” pay is more like $40,881.

According to the position’s job description posted on the sheriff’s office website, a deputy’s starting salary is $19.05 an hour.

“I have a $9,000 delta,” Prendergast said. “If I don’t do something to change that number ... these young men and women that we’re trying to recruit now are going to be motivated by something that goes from this to this overnight, and who can blame them.”

Inflation has also been expensive for the sheriff’s office.

Prendergast said there’s been higher unbudgeted costs since this agency’s $31.46 million budget for 2021-22 was passed.

This includes a 61.7 percent increase for a gallon of gasoline, a 200-250 percent increase in ammunition, a 29.6 percent increase in Taser cartridges, and a 5 percent increase to outfit a patrol vehicle.

Capital expenses follow a deputy through their tenure with the sheriff’s office as their bulletproof vests, ballistic helmets, radios, computers, cruisers, firearms and other gear either expire or have to be serviced.

“That’s unforgivable if you send someone out with an old piece of equipment,” Prendergast said.

Rising retirement and insurance contributions have also hit the sheriff’s operational budget hard, Prendergast added.

Citrus County Sheriff's Office 2021 Accomplishments

Prendergast said his deputies, contrary to what the callers of the Chronicle Sound Off section have been claiming, are cracking down on offenders of local roads and waterways.

“We are doing our job,” he said, “and we are doing it every single day. ... We’re busy.”

In 2021, the sheriff said, deputies made 33,110 traffic stops, a 21 percent increase from 2020; issued 10,067 citations, a 12 percent increase; and wrote 14,622 warnings, a 41 percent increase.

Prendergast’s marine unit for the county – made up of three full-time deputies – also reported a 273 percent increase and a 639 percent increase in boating citations and warnings, respectively, compared to last year.

“With zero help from the board of county commissioners,” the sheriff said. “Even though they asked me, ‘sheriff, what can we do to enhance your presence on the waterways of Citrus County?’”

Prendergast said commissioners had a chance last summer to fund additional sheriff’s office resources to curb the rowdiness of the popular Homosassa River headsprings, but they opted instead to create quiet zones for the Homosassa’s Blue Waters.

“And yet the complaints continue to come in about things happening on the water,” he said.

Prendergast said he wants to allocate more than $1 million of his agency’s next budget to add six marine unit deputies equipped with “mission-capable” vessels and gear to handle more patrols and complex water rescues.

In partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Division of Law Enforcement, sheriff’s office marine operations between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends helped result in zero boating fatalities.

A prior Chronicle report from June states the sheriff’s office put in $30,000 in overtime during the Memorial Day weekend patrolling the Homosassa and Crystal rivers, issuing 619 warnings and 146 citations. Part of the overtime was funded by grants.

Prendergast said he also plans to ask commissioners this year, like last year, for funds to launch an agency-wide body-camera program for sheriff’s office deputies and officers.

For its body-camera service, Motorola quoted the sheriff’s office March 22 a first-year payment of $350,000, and $1.2 million over the course of five years.

“The time has come for us to stop playing around with things we need to do for officer safety,” Prendergast said, “and for community’s safety and wellbeing.”

Prendergast hinted county commissioners might have to consider raising the local sales tax to put toward public safety and the tools county deputies should have.

“The county’s leaders have to get behind this to get behind public safety ... because nothing else matters,” the sheriff said. “When you call 911, you’ll want a response.”


Local
Oak Hill's Mickey Smith stepping down after almost two decades

Mickey Smith might be the chief executive officer of HCA Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill but don’t let the impressive-sounding title fool you.

If you know him – and many in Citrus County do – the first thing you notice is his affability and knack for putting you at ease. He’s not your typical “suit” that only hobnobs with corporate types in fancy offices.

Smith likes to get in the trenches and get involved with the community – whether it’s with his fellow members of the Rotary Club of Crystal River or as a board member of the county Economic Development Authority (EDA) in Citrus County or his affiliations in Hernando County, such as Hernando Progress and the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

“If you want your community to be successful, your hospital has to be successful,” Smith said.

It is with mixed regrets that Smith is retiring April 28 from Oak Hill after 19 years. In a business where most hospital heads stay only a few years before moving on Smith is an anomaly.

He and his wife are moving to Atlanta to care for their four grandchildren, of which they have custody.

No more 45-minute commutes from his home on King’s Bay in Crystal River. No more serene moments on the water or enjoying the laid-back rural scene. No more dealing with torn-up U.S. 19 through Homosassa.

“And no more sunsets,” Smith says wistfully.

Surrounded by ‘excellent people’

The Chronicle spent time with Smith, 67, on Friday morning as he conducted a tour of the 350-bed hospital which employs 1,800 employees.

During that tour, which included a peek at the new emergency room expansion set to debut at year’s end, Smith stopped to chat with employees: everyone from the patient concierge to the coronary physicians in ICU.

At every stop, he chats informally with staff and cracks jokes.

“My dad told me to surround myself with excellent people,” Smith said.

And that, he said, is what he’s done.

Oak Hill Hospital may be in Hernando County but about 4,500 Citrus County residents travel there for medical care. More than 100 Citrus Countians also work at the accredited hospital.

The pandemic strikes

Smith admits the last few years have been insane. The COVID epidemic stretched his staff to the breaking point and he’s still dealing with the aftereffects. As with other hospitals, Smith has severe employee shortages. He’s got 130 registered nurse vacancies and has been forced to pay more for contracted employees.

The supply shortages are also acute – everything from a simple saline solution is hard to get right now, he said.

“This is the hardest time to run a hospital,” Smith said in his office, filled with packing boxes.

At the height of the pandemic, Smith said over half the patients admitted to Oak Hill had COVID.

“It almost brought us to our knees,” he said.

As of Friday, that number is down to five, he said.

The expansion years

The Georgia native oversaw the hospital’s expansion from 180 beds in 2006 into a medical campus with 350 beds on its 140 acres. The hospital opened in 1984 with 96 beds.

Thanks to another expansion, Oak Hill will have 500 beds, hopefully by year’s end.

It was during Smith’s watch that Oak Hill started an open heart and interventional cardiology program. He was instrumental in seeing the start-up of construction on a $50 million operating room and bed tower expansion to accommodate growth.

The hospital, owned by Hospital Corporation of America, is a teaching hospital and enjoys several accreditations. It’s Hernando County’s only open-heart surgery hospital, offers orthopedic and spine surgery, pediatric emergency care, labor, delivery, NICU care, and women’s imaging.

What they say

“Everyone (at Oak Hill) just loves him,” EDA President Don Taylor said. “Everyone knows him. He’s a great communicator.”

Taylor said he used Smith as a sounding board because of his economic development expertise.

Smith, he said, was instrumental in the growth of the airport in Hernando County “and we’re looking at doing something similar for the Inverness airport.”

Florida Senate Pres. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, has known Smith for at least 10 years and during that time he’s worked with the hospital chief on various philanthropic projects in the area.

Simpson calls Smith “an honorable man” and a “valuable asset to our community...”

His accomplishments at Oak Hill Hospital extend beyond Hernando County because Citrus and Pasco Countians travel there for medical care, he said.

“He’s done a good job expanding and meeting the tri-county needs,” Simpson added.

State Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, said he and Smith are industrial engineers and Smith’s father wrote a training textbook they used back in the day.

“(Smith) has done very well with HCA Oak Hill Hospital,” Massullo said. “It is known for its efficiency and care and I think a lot of that was because of his efficiency and leadership.”

Parting words

Smith said he will miss the more laid-back lifestyle of Citrus and Hernando counties and is not looking forward to the congestion of Atlanta.

But he and his wife are committed to raising their grandchildren so off he goes.

“I’ll miss Citrus County,” he said. “It’s just a great place to live.”


Local
Local educator and mother pen book of mom’s memories of living through Nazi-occupied France

”I was 7 when the war started. I am now 90 years old. ... As a young girl during the years before the Nazi occupation, my world consisted of my family, our restaurant in Fille, my friend Jacko, and the Sarthe River that flowed near our home.” — Annette Hee Brunner, “Annette Remembers”

As a boy, Mark Brunner, now retired from the Citrus County School District and currently a professor of Educational Leadership at Saint Leo University, loved hearing his mother and grandmother’s “wartime bedtime stories.”

“When we were little, my grandmother lived with us, and instead of regular bedtime stories, she and my mom would tell us their stories from the war, so we heard them all through our childhood,” Brunner said in a video interview with his mother, Annette Brunner, from her home in Ohio near Lake Erie.

“Then in 1959, when I was in second grade, I went to France with my mom and grandmother, and all of these stories came to life,” he said.

His mother had spent her early childhood years in Le Mans, France, before immigrating to the U.S. with her family in 1948.

Throughout her life, Annette has kept a diary of her memories and a photo album of pictures from her years as a girl and a young teen growing up in France before, during and after Nazi occupation during World War II.

When Mark retired from the Citrus County school district and took a job teaching at Young Harris College in Georgia, the school had a “War Remembrance” presentation and invited Mark to share his mother’s stories.

“So, I took those stories and put them into the form of a presentation ... and then around 2013 I began thinking about organizing them into a book. Two years ago, Mom and I sat down earnestly and began putting the stories together in book form,” he said.

A carefree life interrupted

In the summer of 1940, I saw the German occupation through the eyes of my parents. I saw how the occupation suppressed their spirits and the spirits of those around them. ... (Yet) the love of place and a devotion to family counterweighted the heavy pall that hung over our town due to the occupation and eventual bombing by the allies. ... I thought my life in France would last forever….

Annette's First Holy Communion. Now 90, her faith still plays a big part in her life.

Annette grew up in Fille and later Le Mans, France. Her parents were business owners. Life was carefree.

The memories of my childhood in Fille are easy to conjure up. I can recall being 7 and playing in the street behind the restaurant and bar that my Mama and Papa owned in this small village on the outskirts of Le Mans, northwest France.

The ecole (school), eglise (village church), butcherie (butcher shop), boulangere (bakers) and modest restaurant and bar my parents owned are fixed in my mind as they were before the war began. They were all within easy walking distance from our home.

As a young girl, I walked the narrow cobblestone streets of this picturesque resort village. The river Sarthe, which ran through the center of town, was the main attraction. The river’s deep shaded pools and overhanging willows drew fishermen and vacationers to its banks during the summer months.

Annette still recalls the first hints of war when French soldiers came to her village in 1939, before the war actually began.

A photo from 1920 that Annette calls “Mama, Papa and Coiffeurs.” Her father owned a hair salon and her mother ran a restaurant and bar.

Her family’s restaurant became a gathering place for the French soldiers, and the officers held meetings there nearly every night.

Talk of a possible war was the only topic in the smoke-filled meeting room each evening. The restaurant was very profitable for my parents at that time. Soldiers came and went as they were called to the defense of France.

There was one French soldier nicknamed, “Coco” of whom I was particularly fond. He came every day for his meals and took time to visit and talk with me.

He had a patch over one eye. The uncovered eye revealed kindness and gentleness noticed by other soldiers and villagers. For that reason, he was named “Coco belle oeil” (pretty eye) by our family. He drew pictures for me with a stub of white chalk on the blackboard I had for my schoolwork.

Photos Special to the Chronicle 

Swimming and being on the swim team was important to young Annette. In this photo, she is third from the left in the front row.

I looked forward to seeing him each day and anticipated what creation he would draw for me. ... As a special gift to me, he drew a Mickey Mouse on my chalkboard before he left for the front and signed it “Coco belle oeil.” I cherished this work of art as if it were the Mona Lisa.

‘Hell on earth’

The Germans came and occupied Annette’s village in September 1940.

She remembers watching with fear the triumphant entry of the German army, marching in parade formation, swastika flags flapping in the wind, soldiers swinging one leg in unison high into the air while the other was held rigid and unbent.

I learned later that this was called a goose step, she wrote in her book.

When the Germans came, everyone in the village shut and locked their street-side shutters. With the village so tightly closed, it felt as though its spirit suddenly and mysteriously had disappeared, Annette wrote. By closing their shutters, people closed off a life that once was.

Mama was sobbing while watching and hearing the heavy marching steps of the German soldiers and the Hi Lo, Hi La songs they sang as they marched through Fille. To our ears, their marching song was an ominous chant; I knew from the look of my parents and sisters that something dreadful was happening.

In 1943, the bombings began.

Annette’s school photo from 1937. She is in the front row, third from the left.

They had to keep the shades down on the windows. There was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place. Anyone who dared being outside during those times risked being shot, Annette wrote. We never knew which night would bring the bombers and the bombings; therefore, we never went to bed completely undressed. At the first sound of the siren, we jumped out of our beds, grabbed our shoes, skirts or blouses, and ran toward our shelter place under the stairway.

We were told that the space underneath the stairway of a house always escaped destruction from a bombing, if it didn’t suffer a direct hit.

We usually had chairs underneath the stairs and sat crowded together while anxiously awaiting the first bombs to fall. Mama always had a suitcase containing important papers by her side. Before the bombing started, we could hear the bombers approaching. The sound of the planes was frightful; they had such monotonous tones, all in unison, like distant thunder rolling closer with each passing minute. Their engines grew louder as they approached their target in our vicinity near the factories. We always knew that unless their target was another city, our town of Le Mans would not be spared.

The first bombs released were very close to us, so close that everything in the house trembled. The sound of the planes was thunderous, frightful. Their engines grew louder as they approached the factories; the bombs seemed to be raining down right on top of us. The force of their explosions opened doors in our house and the smell of smoke quickly filled our neighborhood.

The glow of the fires could be seen through a crack in our stairway door. How could anyone survive such a hell on earth?

Liberation!

Annette and her family did survive and were among the grateful French people who welcomed the American and Canadian soldiers who liberated them, throwing them a parade with shouts of joy.

Eventually, Le Mans became alive again, and we were free. I wonder if people of today realize what true freedom really means and how precious it is, Annette wrote.

We were French once again. We were “unoccupied.”

Epilogue

In October 1948, Annette and her family left France for America, settling in Ashtabula, the northeastern corner of Ohio.

That’s where Annette met Larry Brunner, a World War II Navy veteran, whom she married in 1950. Larry’s family owned a dress manufacturing/retail fabrics company, the Brunner Company, and Annette worked as a hairdresser.

The couple had three children, Mark, Kirk and Jennifer.

Annette and Larry lived in the village of Geneva-on-the-Lake, west of Ashtabula, for 69 years, until Larry’s death in February 2020.

Annette still lives in Geneva-on-the-Lake.

Annette Brunner and her son, Mark Brunner. Annette lives in northeast Ohio near Lake Erie. Mark, retired from the Citrus County School District, is currently a professor of Educational Leadership at Saint Leo University. The book, “Annette Remembers,” began as a diary that Annette kept, memories of her life in France until she came to the U.S. with her family in 1948.

During the video interview, Mark Brunner said a newspaper in Le Mans, France, is interested in his mother’s memoir.

“At first, my goal for the book was to have something to give the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, but it has gone beyond that, I think,” Annette said.

Copies of “Annette Remembers” can be purchased through Amazon.com.

Contact Mark Brunner by email at: mdbrunner51@gmail.com.


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