Tuesday, December 12, 2017
News Roundup

Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department seeks freedom from county oversight

HERNANDO BEACH — Not long after David Freda became chief of the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department a year and a half ago, he learned about the challenges of getting things done while tied to the rules of Hernando County government.

Purchasing regulations required a one-size-fits-all model for buying gear. County protocol could be clunky and time consuming. But it was the fire truck the department needed to replace that was the last straw for Freda.

The department determined that, after 27 years, the time had come to park the old fire engine and get a new one. The cost would be about $450,000, including equipment.

But in addition to the payments on the truck that the department would have to make, Freda learned that the department would be required to join the county's fleet replacement program for the first time and pay the county $50,000 a year.

That would allow the county to replace the truck when it is retired in 10 years.

But Hernando Beach doesn't replace its trucks every 10 years. Why would it? The department only responds to about 300 calls each year. The newest truck sitting at the station now is 24 years old.

"Forcing us into the fleet replacement program would do a disservice to the residents of Hernando Beach,'' Freda said, noting that it would eat up a huge chunk of his $250,000 annual budget.

So the chief decided to make something old new again. He began talking to county officials — including Hernando Beach resident and County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes — about independence.

Earlier this month, at Dukes' urging, the commission approved an ordinance that will begin the process of taking the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department out from under county control.

"We're going back to the way that the department was originally created,'' Freda said.

The department has operated with nonprofit status since 1975, and, several years after that, a prior chief decided the department could use the county's help and moved the department under the county umbrella, unaware of what the future consequences might be, Freda said.

Under the independence plan now in the works, the county would continue to collect fees from those within the fire district, but would turn the money over to the nonprofit corporation to spend.

The Hernando Beach department provides service to roughly 1,500 residences, 1,500 empty lots and 55 commercial properties in an area about 18.4 square miles. The district is in the far southwest corner of Hernando County.

Residents pay $107.36 annually, an increase approved last year from the old fee of $66.07. Vacant lots are assessed $71.57 and commercial buildings $169.98 per lot, also higher than in previous years. That extra money was needed to buy the truck, Freda explained.

In addition to getting the department out from under county purchasing and fleet mandates, independence would mean the department wouldn't have to pay what is known as its cost allocation. That is the pro-rated amount county departments pay for their usage of core county services such as human resources, and finance and legal services.

The annual price tag for the Hernando Beach department runs about $30,000.

That means the volunteer department will have to pay for its own accountant to keep an eye on the books and for its own legal assistance, when needed.

"Hopefully we'll save some money,'' Freda said.

During the County Commission discussion about the ordinance, Commissioner Nick Nicholson said independence should be a good thing for the department. If it doesn't work, he noted, the commission will be having a different kind of discussion about the department.

Freda knows that consolidation of all county fire departments has been suggested in the past, but said Hernando Beach residents support the volunteer department and the department supports them.

"We're very community oriented, and we try to do everything we can for them,'' Freda said, noting that is why he is willing to put in the work to make the department independent. "We don't want to tax them to death."

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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