County commissioners meet remotely

Citrus County Commissioners Jimmie T. Smith, left, Scott Carnahan and Ron Kitchen Jr. participate in a board meeting in April, while Commissioners Brian Coleman and Jeff Kinnard appeared remotely and can be seen on the screen.

It’s been nine weeks since Citrus County commissioners declared a state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith thinks it’s time for that to end.

Smith said he will ask commissioners on Tuesday to lift the state of emergency, which could impact how the government goes about reacting to the pandemic, but has no practical effect on residents or businesses.

“The true purposeness of the emergency declaration is to give tools to go out and expend money without a vote,” Smith said. “We have gotten past that point. We have all the expenditures we need.”

The county has been under a state of emergency since March 9, the same date that Florida’s emergency declaration took effect.

It provides County Administrator Randy Oliver the leeway to spend money on emergency items without a board vote, gives the county the ability to make purchases without bid, and allows federal reimbursement for coronavirus-related expenses.

Board Chairman Brian Coleman, who heads up a working group of representatives from the sheriff’s office, both cities and the health department, said he will oppose such a move.

“Both cities are against it. I’m against it,” he said. “We don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. It’s not a hurricane where you come to the end and it’s done. There’s still a lot of stuff going on. I don’t see any reason to remove the present emergency declaration for the county.”

Coleman said if a first responder contracts the virus and needs to be quarantined, the county could put him or her up in a local motel and be reimbursed by the federal government for that cost. Without an emergency declaration, he said, the county would eat that cost.

“It provided funding through the federal government,” Coleman said. “What do we lose by keeping it?”

Smith said he isn’t swayed by that argument.

“If the county can’t figure out how to pay for a person to be in a hotel room with our already approved budget, we have a problem,” he said.

Coleman and Commissioner Jeff Kinnard found themselves on the losing end of a pair of 3-2 votes two weeks ago regarding reopening county parks. Coleman and Kinnard supported a gradual approach; Commissioners Smith, Scott Carnahan and Ron Kitchen Jr. voted to reopen all parks with no restrictions other than social-distancing guidelines.

Smith said the county could recoup expenses from the state government, though he doesn’t think that will be necessary.

“We have money in our own budget,” he said. “We have bought all the things we need to buy.”

On Tuesday’s board agenda, County Attorney Denise Dymond Lyn is asking the board for a vote whether to continue the state of emergency declaration.

Whether the county lifts the emergency stay or not, residents and businesses won’t be impacted at all. Both Coleman and Smith said in separate interviews the county cannot supersede the governor’s COVID-19 orders as Florida is in a state of emergency.

Tuesday’s board meeting begins at 1 p.m. at the courthouse in Inverness. As has been the case the last three meetings, county officials are urging the public to stay home and watch either online or on Spectrum Channel 643. Residents may participate during public comment portions of the meeting by calling 352-341-8795.

The agenda includes:

• Approving a $13.3 million grant contract with the Florida Department of Transportation for the widening of County Road 491 between Audubon Park Path and Horace Allen Street. The county’s portion of the project is $14.9 million, Oliver said.

• Annual employee evaluation of the county attorney.

• 2 p.m. public hearing on applying for $1.25 million in federal grants for the county’s transit system.

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.