THE ISSUE: Conflict between Inverness and County.
OUR OPINION: Time for intervention.
It is time for the leadership of Inverness and Citrus County to sit down and develop a peace treaty.
Inverness, which is officially the county seat, and Citrus County government, have had a simmering conflict for more than two decades. Every time a dispute erupts between the two governmental entities, bad decisions are made and taxpayer’s dollars are wasted.
It’s time to stop it.
The conflict started two decades ago when county commissioners decided to try and move the county seat and county jail to Lecanto.
The move was more than a political insult to Inverness, it was an economic punch in the stomach to the county seat. The city was dependent on many of the affiliated businesses in the legal and political community to foster commerce and pay taxes.
Ironically, Inverness used that negative momentum to pull itself together and redevelop the city. Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni has been a dynamic leader for the entire rejuvenation of the city. Major restorations and redevelopment have happened throughout the county seat, but very little has been done in cooperation with the county.
Now, after decades of service, DiGiovanni is set to retire at the end of this year.
It should be noted that none of the five current members of the county commission were involved in the effort to move the county offices or jail to Lecanto. Some members don’t even understand how the bad blood came about.
It has become common practice for both sides in the dispute to poke each other in the eye when the opportunity arises.
What remains from that confrontation is a continued lack of trust between the city and the county. That conflict has played itself out in the form of funding conflicts with Whispering Pines Park in Inverness and the very slow development of the airport industrial park.
The lack of trust has been magnified in the recent annexation conflict between the two. Tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees have been squandered because of the county’s aggressive course of action and the city’s tough response. The delays to improvements on U.S. 41 North and MLK Blvd. are booth rooted in a lack of cooperation between city and county.
Neither side remembers how to compromise.
Now the conflict has drifted over to how to handle the future of Citrus Memorial Hospital. The once-public hospital has now been leased to HCA — the largest for-profit hospital group in the country. The lease management needs to be handled by a local government body and the obvious best choice is the county commission. CMH was a county-wide hospital paid for by taxpayers throughout the county.
But hospital board attorney Bill Grant, who is very politically savvy, is pushing the lease management toward the Inverness city government and the council appears receptive to this very bad idea. The reason for their receptiveness: Inverness doesn’t trust the county to do the right thing.
For years there has been an undercurrent rumor that CMH would build a new campus in Lecanto and move out of Inverness — just like county government did.
That prospect scares Inverness because CMH is the largest employer in town. If the county created some crazy incentive plan to push the hospital to Lecanto, Inverness would be devastated by the loss of jobs and business.
Both sides believe the worst in each other and the taxpayers end up footing the bill for each and every conflict. It’s a waste of time and money and needs to be stopped.
As city manager DiGiovanni prepares to retire, the timing is perfect for the two branches of local government to try and do a reset on the conflict. The two governments should be working together to solve the complex issues facing our community instead of wasting energy and resources working against each other.
In fairness, county commissioner Scott Carnahan has been showing some leadership on rebuilding the fractured relationship and deserves recognition.
We urge Brian Coleman, who was just selected chairman of the county commission by his fellow board members, to call for a mediation session with the leaders of the city to find resolution to this two-decade old dispute. Eric Williams, the assistant Inverness administrator who appears likely to be named DiGiovanni’s successor, should be involved along with a representative of the council and county commission.
An official truce agreement should be considered that details those issues that give each group heartburn. Here’s a start: The county should stop fighting annexation. The city should reject the hospital board bid to take over the lease. The county should stipulate that it will not create incentives for HCA leadership to move the hospital to Lecanto.
The city should become a real partner with the county to develop the airport. The county should pledge permanent support for Whispering Pines Park funding as 90 percent of those who use the facility are not even city residents. Both sides should agree to stop suing each other.
As an initial goodwill gesture, the city should officially invite county commissioners to the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new city Depot District.
This is a moment in time where courageous statesmanship is needed on the local level. We challenge the new leaders of both the city and the county to end the hostilities and create a new bridge of cooperation.