BROOKSVILLE — When Sheriff Al Nienhuis returned more money than expected to the county at the end of the fiscal year, the county was able to beef up one item in the budget that had been unfunded or underfunded for the past few years.
To the $50,000 originally budgeted to demolish unsafe buildings in Hernando, officials added $100,000.
County Commissioner Nick Nicholson says he would like to see that money go as far as possible, and he is pitching an idea that could make that happen.
Nicholson met late last week with County Administrator Len Sossamon and other officials to suggest that the county consider allowing firefighters to burn some of the 50 or so buildings that are in the process of being declared unsafe.
The fire training exercise would have several advantages over traditional demolition, he said.
Since demolition and hauling debris to the landfill costs between $10,000 and $15,000 per building, setting the unsafe structures on fire should cost less, he said. It also would keep more debris out of the landfill and provide good training for firefighters.
Nicholson said that when he was campaigning door to door last year, he found that abandoned, rundown buildings were a prime concern to residents. Overgrown lawns, piles of trash and the presence of rats were among the complaints he heard frequently.
The county has a process it must follow to declare a building unsafe. There is a series of notifications to the owner and timelines to follow. An unsafe home is one that has significant structural damage, such as flood or fire damage, said Ron Pianta, assistant county administrator for planning and development.
After demolition, the county places a lien on the property in hopes of recovering some of the cost of the cleanup.
"I think it's worthwhile to take a look at (Nicholson's) idea,'' Pianta said.
But he noted that not all of the structures on the unsafe list could be burned. Some might be mostly concrete. Others might be too unstable.
"I think we need to leave that determination up to the Fire Department,'' he said.
Pianta said neighbors need to be considered as well, and at the very least be notified. Also, he said, there still would be some costs associated with burning unsafe structures.
Hernando County Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino also says the idea has merit, but, like Pianta, he believes each must be looked at separately. Each house would have to be assessed to make sure it contains no asbestos, he noted, and the shingles would have to be stripped off.
While Hernando firefighters have done burns for training previously, it has been rare because of the lack of available, appropriate houses — ones that wouldn't actually cost more to burn than to demolish.
The stability of structures is also a concern of Rampino's.
There are strict protocols for burning a house as a training exercise, and the safety of firefighters is the top priority. Someone who specializes in training for a live fire also must be on hand, he said.
"It's something we're going to look at and look at hard, especially if it is something we can do to save some money and we can do it safely,'' Rampino said.
To him, the opportunity to train in a controlled situation is "invaluable'' because it's a real experience and not a simulation.
"In my opinion,'' he said, "it's some of the best training out there.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.