What started Thursday, Sept. 10, as a somewhat contentious discussion about funding for the Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) ended almost 90 minutes later with board members agreeing in principle to a plan designed to produce more budget transparency and a possible change in its core mission.
The two Citrus County commissioners on the MPO board — Jeff Kinnard and Ron Kitchen — expressed concern over a request from Hernando County commissioners to cough up $100,000 to help pay for projects going forward. The cities of Brooksville, Crystal River and Inverness were being asked to pitch in $50,000 each for representation on the board.
That came as a surprise to Kitchen, who said this was not the original plan when Citrus County was invited to join in 2014.
“That's the way it was sold to us at the very beginning,” Kitchen said.
Kitchen said he wasn't frustrated by his colleagues but with the operations end of the MPO, which included a lack of transparency in the budget.
Hernando County Administrator Jeff Rogers said except for the $450,000 seed money his county put in to launch the MPO in 1992, no other governmental entities have contributed financially.
That includes Citrus County and the cities of Brooksville, Crystal River and Inverness, he said.
Rogers said expenses have risen since the MPO was formed. Staff has grown and consultants are costly. Both counties are growing and, to meet expenses, the MPO needs more money in its coffers.
Without it, the MPO would likely survive but might have to pare down future projects, Rogers said.
After what MPO Chairman and Hernando County Commissioner John Allocco called “robust discussion,” he directed MPO staff to do three things, which will likely take at least a year to accomplish: Provide to each MPO member more clarity on the financial picture of the organization, provide up-to-date billing at each meeting so members are better informed as to cash flow and examine the current list of projects to determine if perhaps the organization is straying too far from its core mission.
At the end of a year, or however long it takes, the MPO should have a clearer mission as it addresses road projects.
“Maybe nothing changes, maybe a lot changes,” Allocco said.
The call for more money from Citrus County and the three cities is on hold, at least for now.
All members agreed they want to pay their fair share. But first, they want to establish a financial base line so they know what that share will be for each member city and county.
But clearly, it shouldn't be Hernando County paying the full freight, Hernando County Commissioner Steve Champion said.
“We shouldn't have all the money in it and you have nothing,” Champion told the Citrus County representatives. “(It) should be equal because we're all one team.”
Hernando County Finance Director Amy Gillis said she will work with members to provide any and all budgetary information they need going forward.
The MPO is governed by federal and state regulations and sets goals, objectives and policies for transportation projects in the two-county area. The projects are federally reimbursed, through the Florida Department of Transportation. But that can take time and of the $450,000, only $200,000 is left in the bank right now, Gillis said.
Rogers said the lack of cash flow can handcuff road projects. Those projects, especially with the Suncoast Parkway extension, will particularly benefit Citrus County, he said.
“We're going to see more transportation planning activities,” he added.