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Local
Chamber takes temperature of its members

Each year, the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce conducts a “temperature check” of its 1,000 members, with the purpose of identifying the top issues of the county and gauging their confidence in the institutions and officials governing them.

The poll results are in and it shows that economic development was overwhelmingly ranked as the most important issue by the 150 participants.

From there, concerns include lack of affordable housing, bad road conditions, costly property insurance, the environment, utility infrastructure, mental health, crime and poverty.

michaelbates / Chronicle 

Wooten

This is the second consecutive year business owners cited the economy as being a problem. Some of the same concerns are still present: inflation, supply chain shortages, access to a qualified workforce and a lack of competent people in the job market.

“There wasn’t a big movement on opinions since last year but rather members seemed to have solidified their views,” according to chamber President/CEO Josh Wooten. “It’s always important to hear from our members, especially this being an election year.”

While the poll numbers are not scientific, past checks have closely mirrored elections and surveys of local citizens, he said.

Wooten said the poll results will be used to develop questions for its county commissioner political candidate forum on July 8.

Here was a random sampling of anonymous comments from this year’s poll:

“County Commissioner Ron Kitchen is insulting to the women on the county board. He should resign from office now.”

“As far as community support and encouraging culture and acceptance, Citrus County is definitely heading backwards.”

“The flow of traffic is ridiculous. It takes longer to get from Crystal River through Inverness than it does to get to Tampa.”

“Citrus County is heading in the wrong direction with economic development. Bringing in these unremarkable big-box stores and associated retailers, we, as a county, are losing what sets us apart from other communities.”

“All in all, I feel we are pretty fortunate. Like most businesses, the thought of finding qualified employees at a wage we can afford is intimidating.”

Of the five county commissioners, Ruthie Schlabach received the highest score from respondents and Ron Kitchen Jr. the lowest.

Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, received high marks in the 70 percent range. Sheriff Mike Prendergast got a 45 percent favorable rating.

Here’s the percentage of respondents who said the following are on the right track:

Citrus County Chamber of Commerce (94 percent).

State of Florida (59 percent).

Citrus County (38 percent).

City of Crystal River (81 percent).

City of Inverness (64 percent).


Education
School Board to continue discussion for athletic trainers

The Citrus County School Board meeting Tuesday, May 10, will feature the approval of Mark Kahler as principal of Citrus High School, as well as presentations of awards for the Florida Retired Educators Association Fifth Grade Essay Contest, National Merit Recognition and the 4-H Public Speaking Contest.

Last month, the Citrus County School Board members discussed the possibility of contracting with the University of Florida Health Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Institute to hire athletic trainers for students in Citrus County schools. The board members were very interested and on-board with the idea, but wanted to find the best available option concerning price and equitability as well.

At this month’s meeting, there will be a presentation by ATvantage Athletic Training with the potential of contracting with them instead.

The school board members and officials will discuss what ATvantage has to offer, the prices of their services and what might make them a better or worse option than the UF program.

Other topics of interest to be covered in the meeting include the approval of the LifeStream Behavioral Center Mobile Response Team (MRT) which provides 24/7 on-demand crisis intervention services and critical care for students who may be experiencing a behavioral health crisis. The board members will be able to ask questions concerning the operations of this service.

The annual approval of the Career Dual Enrollment Pathways Expansion Grant will also occur at this meeting. It will go toward adding a Veterinary Assistant course at Crystal River High School Academy of Health Sciences, as well as expanding the existing Automotive Service Technology and Welding Technology programs at Withlacoochee Technical College.

Before the regular meeting starts Tuesday, there will be a workshop at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday for the board members to discuss changes to the 2022-23 Code of Student Conduct, including how to deal with cell phones and vaping in schools for the new school year. School Board workshops are open to the public.

For information or to view complete agenda items and documents, visit tinyurl.com/3av9kwyt. To watch the live meeting, visit youtube.com/user/CitrusSchools. The in-person meeting will take place at 4 p.m. May 10 at the district office, 1007 W. Main St., Inverness.


Local
Man's crusade makes beach more accessible
  • Updated

Editor's note: This story has been edited to include additional information about the organization Once Upon an Ocean.

Surrounded by family, friends and county staff and officials, Bruce Titus was the man of the hour Monday morning at Fort Island Beach in Crystal River.

With party music playing on the Bumpboxx, blue skies overhead and a cool breeze blowing, he and Citrus County Commissioner Holly Davis cut the blue ribbon, officially opening the 100-foot, wheelchair-accessible, Mobi-mat beach access mat.

Titus, 25, has been in a wheelchair since 2016 after being hit by a car from behind as he rode his bicycle home.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck Chronicle photo editor 

Dakota Hodge, 17, and her sister Dreama Hodge, 19, are assisted Monday, May 9, by their parents Troy Gusler and Lisa Jordan, as a new beach mat is ceremonially opened to the public at Fort Island Gulf Beach in Crystal River.

Last fall, he had written an essay for a college English class about the benefits of these beach mats for people in wheelchairs.

As he researched for his assignment, he wondered if it was possible to get one at Citrus County’s local beach.

What began as a school assignment turned into a crusade, and Monday was the culmination of his efforts.

“This is amazing,” Titus said. “Once I gained the support from everybody, that’s when I knew it would happen ... I really enjoyed going to the county commission meetings and being a part of it.

“Last week when we were out here installing the concrete and the mat, I loved seeing the different county departments out here, working together,” he said. “These mats are popping up all over, and it’s time that people started waking up. Like I said when I first started this, ‘Nobody thinks about how the other guy gets around.’”

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

The beach mat is ribbed and provides added traction on the soft sand leading to the waters edge at Fort Island Gulf Beach.

Titus wasn’t the only one in a wheelchair on Monday.

Lisa Jordan and Troy Gusler had brought teen sisters, Dakota and Dreama Hodge, both in wheelchairs.

“The girls love the water, but until now, the closest we could take them was the boardwalk,” Jordan said. “This is great.”

Valerie Washburn, who is part of the same spinal cord injury support group as Titus, said she is extremely proud of Titus’ hard work.

“Unless people in wheelchairs speak up, we won’t be heard,” she said. “We’re not seen very often.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

Several wheelchair-bound visitors attended the ribbon cutting ceremony Monday, May 9, at Fort Island Gulf Beach.

“For example, I told my son about this and he said, ‘How often would you even go to the beach?’ I told him, ‘It doesn’t matter. If I only go once, it’s here for me.’ This is a good thing,” she said.

On behalf of the county, Holly Davis said, “You may have noticed, we’re going through a few growing pains here in Citrus County. But I have to say, this event shows our greatest strength, which is our community spirit.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

Bruce Titus and his niece Raelyn Smith use the new beach mat at Fort Island Gulf Beach Monday, May 9.

“So, even though we’re going through these growing pains, the community spirit brings us forward. We are inclusive; we support each other,” she said. “And whenever possible, we always provide access to everyone, especially for a fine amenity like this beach.”

Davis went on to call Titus “the embodiment of what a collegial town square spirit is.”

“He brought a situation to us that we weren’t aware of,” she said. “We need folks to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is an issue,’ and we, as a government, need to say, ‘Let’s see what we can do about that.’”

Mark Maksimowicz, who has a 20-year-old disabled daughter who’s also in a wheelchair, is someone in the community who stepped up to do something after reading the original story in the Chronicle.

Maksimowicz had said that years ago while at the beach, his daughter’s wheelchair got bogged down in soft sand and that he understood Titus’ plight.

“Ironically, six months ago both of my daughters decided they wanted to do something so people in wheelchairs could go to the beach and they started a nonprofit organization called ‘Once Upon an Ocean.’”

Maksimowicz has not only donated $1,000 toward the project, but has also committed to donating maintenance of the mat for the first year once it’s installed.

“That way the county doesn’t have to allocate funds to maintain it for that year,” he told the Chronicle in February 2022, adding that all these mats require is to be swept and kept level.

“While we’re out doing that, we’re going to keep the beach clean, pick up litter and take care of the mat so everybody can use it,” he said.

Maksimowicz is the founder of Watergoat, the nonprofit organization that makes a device that removes trash from local waterways.

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

The long, beach mat reaches from the parking lot at Fort Island Gulf Beach to near the waters edge allowing those with mobility issues easier access to the beach.

One day in December 2021, Titus sat in his wheelchair on the cement edge of the sand at this same beach, looking out toward the water.

“I love it here,” he said then. “Growing up in Citrus County, as a kid my family would come here quite a bit, watching the sun set, swimming in the water, building sand castles. “It’s the one thing I miss.”

mattbeck / Matthew Beck / Chronicle photo editor 

Bruce Titus, who spearheaded the effort to get a beach mat installed at Fort Island Gulf Beach, cuts a ceremonial ribbon officially opening the beach mat to the public. Parks and Recreation director Francine Nobles, left, and County Commissioner Holly Davis assist in the ribbon cutting.

On Monday, he sat in his wheelchair on the edge of the Mobi-mat on top of the sand, more than halfway down the beach toward the water, with several friends who were also in wheelchairs.

“This is the best feeling in the world,” he said.


Crime_and_courts
Court digest
Floral City man agrees to open plea of 20 years in prison for child-porn collection

A Floral City man who was facing a little more than 250 years behind bars for his collection of illegal pornography accepted a plea deal to keep his punishment capped at 20 years.

In exchange for Citrus County Circuit Court Judge Richard Howard’s open-plea offer, 37-year-old Patrick James Crocker pleaded no contest Monday, May 9, to 17 counts of possessing 10 or more images of child pornography.

Citrus County Sheriff's Office 

CROCKER

Howard will sentence Crocker June 13 to up to 20 years in prison, after he reviews the pre-sentence investigation report on Crocker’s background, and considers arguments from Assistant State Attorney Blake Shore and Crocker’s lawyer, Joshua Houston.

Crocker was due to stand trial this week, and a conviction as charged would have pitted him against an original sentencing threshold of between 19 and 255 years in prison for his 17 second-degree felonies.

A prison term less than 19 years from Howard will be a downward departure from Crocker’s sentencing guidelines.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) authorities arrested Crocker Nov. 19, 2020, as a result of FDLE Special Agent Dodi Pruitt’s undercover investigation to identify distributors of child pornography on the internet.

Using peer-to-peer sharing software, Pruitt download four illicit files between Sept. 15 and Oct. 12, 2020, from an IP address associated with Crocker’s home off of East Penbrook Lane.

Law enforcement raided Crocker’s home Nov. 18, 2020. During a search of Crocker’s desktop computer, Pruitt came across more than 200 video files with titles relating to child pornography, depicting children between 6 and 12 years old.

In his interview with Pruitt, Crocker denied downloading the files but admitted to finding the digital materials while searching for other files.

Crocker said his roommate, who lived with Crocker from September up until his October 1 arrest in Hernando County, also had access to the computer.

Pruitt verified Crocker’s statement about his roommate’s arrest, but noted the files she downloaded came two weeks after Crocker’s roommate left.

Howard had also granted Shore’s motion on April 19, 2022, to have the prosecutor introduce Crocker’s jury to around 2,000 other unlawful images Crocker’s not charged with.

Due to the lengthy prison time Crocker was already facing, prosecutors declined to charge him for those additional materials, which FDLE found on a USB flash drive that had been attached to a laptop Crocker told authorities no one else uses.

Crocker denied Shore’s plea offer in February and March to serve 15 years in prison to resolve his criminal case short of trial.

Hernando man accused in one of CCSO’s largest meth, fentanyl seizures to stand trial

Hernando 58-year-old Ricky Lee Pope rejected the prosecution’s undisclosed plea offer Monday in court, solidifying one of his three drug-trafficking and dealing cases for trial on Tuesday.

Citrus County Sheriff's Office 

Pope

Pope’s lead-off case for trial charges him with armed trafficking in methamphetamine, possessing a place to sell or traffic in a controlled substance, possessing cannabis with intent to sell, possessing a firearm as a convicted felon and possessing drug paraphernalia.

Those allegations stem from a Jan. 30, 2020, raid of Pope’s former residence off of North Arcadia Way in Citrus Springs.

Members of the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office Tactical Impact Unit found 1.1 pounds of meth, 6.15 pounds of cannabis, 1.9 ounces of ecstasy, three fentanyl patches, 11 vials of steroids, and drug-packaging materials.

At the time, it was the largest seizure of meth and fentanyl in sheriff’s office history.

Deputies also recovered a pistol, a revolver with an attached homemade suppressor, an assault rifle, and three shotguns, which were illegal for Pope, a three-time convicted felon, to have.

Authorities obtained a warrant to search Pope’s home after they pulled Pope over a few hours earlier for running a stop sign on U.S. 41, outside of Dunnellon. During the search of Pope’s vehicle, deputies discovered meth, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana.

Pope was arrested and charged with possessing heroin, possessing meth, possessing oxymorphone, possessing MDMA (ecstasy), possessing less than 20 grams of cannabis, and possessing drug paraphernalia.

Pope was arrested again Jan. 31 while he was being processed at the Citrus County Detention Facility. A jail security camera recorded Pope take a plastic bag from his boot and throw it across the intake room.

Corrections officers and a sheriff’s office deputy recovered the bag, which had 26.60 grams of meth, 1.4 grams of heroin and 0.86 grams of cocaine inside. Pope was charged with trafficking in meth, possessing cocaine, and possessing heroin.


News_notes
Supervisor of Elections to be at Floral City Library

The Supervisor of Elections office will be holding an outreach event at the Floral City Library from 9-11 a.m. on May 12.

Register to vote, make changes to voter records or request a vote-by-mail ballot. Information to apply for election worker positions will also be available.

Anyone interested in having the elections office staff at an organization or business, contact Supervisor Maureen ‘Mo’ Baird.

The Floral City Library is located at 8360 E. Orange Ave., Floral City.

To learn more, visit votecitrus.gov, email vote@votecitrus.gov or contact the office at 352-564-7120.


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