BROOKSVILLE — Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department Chief David Freda breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday when the Hernando County Commission passed a resolution that will bring about 62 percent more revenue to his department next year.
The raise comes at a time when Freda's operational budget is the tightest it's been in the nearly nine years since he joined the department. As a result, department needs have gone neglected. A 1987 GMC tanker truck that flooded during no-name storm of March 1993 has deteriorated to the point that it is no longer serviceable. Essential firefighting equipment — masks, air tanks and other items — also is in dire need of replacement, Freda said.
Freda, who commands the 25-member volunteer squad that provides first-responder fire service to about 1,500 homes and 55 businesses in Hernando Beach, Forest Glenn and Aripeka, said he told county Commissioner Wayne Dukes that things had gotten to the point where he was concerned about the safety of his staff.
"(Dukes) was a firefighter, so he knows that the things we need aren't luxuries," Freda said.
The fee increase is the first since 2006 and will tack on $41.29 to the $66.07 that homeowners currently contribute annually, meaning the new fee will total $107.36. Assessments on vacant lots will increase from $44 to $71.57. Commercial assessments will rise from the current $109.82 to $169.98.
Most of the Hernando Beach residents who spoke at the commission meeting said they had no problem with the increase.
"It's a small price to pay for what we get in return," said Diane Overbeek, president of the Hernando Beach South Property Owners Association.
Others disagreed, saying the increase was too large during a time when county services are being slashed for budgetary reasons.
Freda said that while the department is permitted to request a fee increase every four years, it didn't do so in 2010 because the previous fire chief felt it wouldn't be a popular move during the weak economy. Since then, he said, the department has been stretched to make ends meet because of increased operating costs.
Of the department's $152,000 annual budget, Freda said about $70,000 goes to mandatory operating costs such as insurance, electricity and vehicle maintenance, including $21,000 that is paid to the county. None of the staff receives a salary.
Freda said the fee increase will go mostly toward the purchase of a fire truck and new gear for firefighters. In addition, he hopes enough will be left over to enable the department to step up firefighter training and certification.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.