By Dan Harkins
DELTONA - County leaders have been dodging bullets in recent weeks that question their allegiance to the county's biggest municipality.
The sticking point now: Mayor John Masiarczyk wrote a letter to Volusia County Chair Frank Bruno in early summer, formally asking the county to transfer ownership of a 2,000-square-foot EVAC building abutting Dewey Boster Park for use as the city's parks and recreation department headquarters. After a favorable meeting among city and county staff on July 3 about the matter, Mayor Masiarczyk said he was confident about the deal, until City Manager Faith Miller informed city leaders at their July 16 regular meeting that she had just received a no-frills letter from Deputy County Manager Mary Anne Conners informing them that the deal was still on the backburner.
"Currently," stated the letter's second of two sentences, "Volusia County is not in the position to transfer this property and we will notify you should the property become available."
Mayor Masiarczyk and several colleagues cried foul at that meeting.
"That is absolutely unacceptable ... to make that decision without it ever coming before county council," he said. "Is she falling on the sword for somebody or whatever? It's election season, I understand that, but not even a phone call or anything? Per capita, we pay a whole lot for the same as every other city gets, and we can't even get an elected official from the county to answer our letters?"
The anger permeates the commission.
Commissioner Herb Zischkau, often the lone dissenter on the commission, said, "When the seven of us have a united front on an issue, you know somebody has done something wrong."
Commissioner Zenaida Denizac sent a letter on July 13 to all county council members, just before Ms. Miller received the letter from Ms. Conner.
"This lack of response is very concerning and makes me question how Volusia County regards Deltona's election officials and the 86,000 people they represent," Ms. Denizac wrote.
Later, she added, "We teach people how to treat us. How many times are we going to be slapped in the face before we push back? ... Instead we just put our heads in the sand and pretend nothing is going on while our citizens are suffering."
Commissioner Fred Lowry said simply, "Frankly, I'm sick to death of it."
'Sand in your face'
To truly understand the rift, said Mayor John Masiarcyzk, one must have gone through year after year of county ECHO grant denials and other perceived slights by county officials.
"You play in their sandbox with their sand and their toys," Mayor Masiarczyk said, "and if they don't like it they throw sand in your face and kick you out."
That's talk the commission could back up with action soon.
At recent budget hearings, commissioners have questioned the expense of annual membership fees to Team Volusia, Volusia League of Cities and the Volusia Council of Governments, for which Mayor Masiarczyk is the city's representative.
Mayor Masiarczyk said the city could even go so far as to stop participating in the Osteen joint planning area, if the county wants to play games.
Whoa! says County Councilwoman Pat Northey, who represents the Deltona area.
"I don't think it was an intentional oversight," she said last week. "I watched the meeting and I was not happy, particularly because I talk with commissioners on a fairly regular basis there and not one had said I got a problem with what you're doing."
The Volusia County Council discussed the EVAC building and Deltona's biting rhetoric at its July 26 meeting. It's one of several buildings being currently inventoried as part of a wide-ranging analysis of county real estate holdings pertaining to public safety.
County Chair Frank Bruno tried to sum up the rift like this: "We correspond with a city, and the city says we're not corresponding with the city."
Mr. Bruno said he'd felt no negative vibes from Mayor Masiarcyzk at any countywide meetings, and said he handed off the letter for staff to handle as part an ongoing assessment of its real estate holdings.
County Manager Jim Dinneen told councilors that several staffers had a meeting on July 6 with Deltona department heads about the EVAC building, and everything was positive about some form of trade-off being arranged.
The deal was shaping up like this: the city would get the building and the county would get to locate a new fuel depot there.
A half-hour into the discussion, Mr. Dinneen said, City Manager Faith Miller came into the meeting with Fire Chief Robert Staples.
A concern was raised about potable water being stored nearby and how that might restrict the location of fuel tanks.
"Once Faith got involved," Mr. Dinneen explained, "we wanted to make sure we had an answer back to them, so Mary Anne, the deputy manager, wrote to them saying that we're not giving it away and that we haven't determined that it's surplus at this given point."
Later, he added, "Clearly, this was labeled something other than it really is."
The city first asked for the building in 2001, and the county said no because it was an active EVAC post.
That's no longer the case, Ms. Northey said, and there probably wouldn't be an issue with ultimately relinquishing control back to the city.
"I understand why they would want it," she said. "It's right next to a park that's heavily used. If I sat on that commission I'd be asking to use it too."
She recommended to staff that a timeline be created so the city can have some idea of when a decision would ultimately be made.
"I'm a great believer in a friendly trade," Mr. Dinneen noted.
Mr. Dinneen crafted a formal letter from Chair Bruno that was sent to Mayor Masiarczyk and commissioners on Aug. 2.
In it, the problem appeared to be put to bed - at least on the county's side of things - with county leaders proposing to make a decision within the next month.
"By working harmoniously," the letter ends, "and with clear understanding, we can do what's best for our residents."
What it means
This issue has a deeper foundation than just some small building on Saxon Boulevard.
Ms. Northey said she can understand why Deltona might sometimes feel left out at budget time. All communities feel that way sometimes. But she takes offense that she and her colleagues have been portrayed as unresponsive.
When the city recently challenged the County Council's decision to update the zoning in Deltona's unincorporated Osteen area, Ms. Northey said, she could have written a letter then, but instead she organized a meeting that ended with a better understanding of all concerns.
"I'm just struggling to understand what their concerns are," she said. "I want to make sure they feel the love."
As far as membership to county planning organizations, Ms. Northey said Deltona should think carefully about how they characterize the split.
Daytona Beach and Daytona Beach Shores are the only two municipalities to ever suspend their membership to the Volusia Council of Governments, and that was only for a few months in the 1990s.
"Certainly," Ms. Northey said, "if they decide to leave (VCOG) they need to make clear that it's not because they're tired of VCOG but because of their budget."
Mary Swiderski, VCOG's executive director, said she "can't explain why they think we're expendable."
It was VCOG that helped DeBary and Deltona become cities in the 1990s, and it continues to be the group that allows all municipalities to gather and discuss common problems.
"Maybe we've done the job too good," she said. "Maybe we've created such a consensus that Deltona doesn't think they need us anymore."
That would mean isolationism, she said, and where would that leave Deltona on the map?
"I don't know why they would want to be out there on their own," Ms. Swiderski said, "and not be a part of what is going to happen with Volusia in the future. What's going to happen is, they're not going to be at the table and they won't have a voice. And if anything gets voted on, the west side loses a voice."
That voice has gone hoarse from trying to be heard, said Mayor Masiarczyk.
"Maybe we should be sticking up for Deltona and we should tell the county we're very sorry but you've proven by your actions that you aren't going to stand up for the people of Deltona," he said, "so we have to take it into our own hands."