SPRING HILL — With voters once again refusing to allow Spring Hill Fire Rescue to collect taxes to operate the district, attention now shifts to the eventual consolidation of the district and Hernando County's fire services.
How that will happen and what form it will take remains unclear. But if County Commissioner Jim Adkins had his way, answers will come sooner rather than later.
"Time really is of the essence here," Adkins said Thursday, the day after voters decided by a count of 10,323 to 9,019 to deny the district the taxing authority. "This is a complex issue and we need to get it figured out before the last penny (of the district's reserves) runs out."
When the current interlocal tax collection agreement with the county expires on Sept. 30, the independent fire district will have only a few months of operating capital before it must declare bankruptcy if it depletes its reserves.
A stopgap ordinance passed Tuesday by the County Commission, however, should ensure that funding will continue until a broader taxing agreement is in place.
Although a consolidation plan by County Administrator David Hamilton has been on the table for several weeks, details have yet to be ironed out between district and county officials.
Under the proposal, a transition phase of up to two years would begin shortly after the district is recognized by the state as being in a financial emergency. The county would maintain the 2.5 mill property tax rate now in place and Spring Hill Fire operations would continue as they do now with the county agreeing to honor the department's contract with its firefighters' union through September 2013.
Meanwhile, a transition team of firefighters, fire administrators and members of the public would work toward combining district fire and rescue services with those of the county. One key element of the transition team's work will be to determine a funding mechanism for fire and emergency medical services.
While Spring Hill has run its service exclusively through property taxes, Hernando County Fire Rescue uses a flat fee of $194.87 each year for residents. Until now, the roughly 92,000 Spring Hill residents in the fire district have not been assessed that fee.
Spring Hill Fire Commissioner Ken Fagan said that while he largely favors Hamilton's plan, he hopes consideration will be given to returning the district to its former dependent status, which would allow at least some local control of day-to-day issues with the county providing oversight.
"The vote wasn't a mandate," Fagan said Thursday. "There was only a 6 (percentage) point difference. ... That tells me that people will remain divided on the issue for a long time."
County Commissioner Dave Russell said he would support the idea of a citizens fire advisory committee, but felt that the district should operate solely under the auspices of the county.
"I don't think anyone cares who calls the shots as long as they're being called," Russell said. "The important thing is that people know that the level of service they've been receiving isn't going to change."
Meanwhile, Spring Hill Fire Chief Mike Rampino said that district operations remain as usual in spite of the failed referendum. Though he has yet to meet with county officials, he expects to do so within the next few days.
"Nothing changes until we hear something from them," Rampino said. "For now, we're doing what we do every day around here."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]