BROOKSVILLE — When it comes to operating the newly merged Hernando County and Spring Hill fire-rescue districts, county commissioners on Tuesday chose to stick with a funding methodology that has served the county for more than a decade.
Beginning Oct. 1, property owners throughout the county, including 39,000 single-family homeowners in the formerly independent Spring Hill district who currently pay for fire and rescue service through property taxes, will pay a maximum annual flat fee of $171.44 for fire service, plus a 0.5534 millage assessment for emergency medical services. The plan offered by county public safety director Mike Rampino also includes the hiring of 18 additional firefighters, which would enable the county to comply with established safety standards at all of its 24 fire stations.
Under the proposal that was approved, county residential customers, who are currently paying an annual flat fee of $194.87 for fire service, would see a savings of $23.43 a year. However, more than half of Spring Hill residents, who currently pay for fire protection through a 2.50-mill property tax, are likely to pay more. In addition, churches, which were previously exempted under Spring Hill's system, will be charged the assessment.
In a scene reminiscent of his years as Spring Hill fire chief, Rampino stood before a packed chamber and faced plenty of stiff questioning from board members before coaxing a favorable 3-2 vote.
While no commissioner voiced outright opposition to the flat-fee methodology, members Wayne Dukes and Nick Nicholson withheld their support, saying that additional firefighters couldn't be justified at a time when the county is facing another budget shortfall.
"I'm not looking to hire more people while we're looking at possibly cutting more staff," Nicholson said.
Rampino replied that the added personnel would bring no additional cost to the county; he said he had found about $623,000 worth of additional annual savings in the county's fire-rescue budget through the elimination of administrative redundancies, union concessions and other reductions brought about by the merger.
Two other prospective plans were discussed, including a hybrid methodology and another that didn't include the additional fire personnel and resulted in about a $6 annual savings to property owners. But neither found support among board members.
A nearly 90-minute public comment period brought a variety of opinions from residents. Most said they felt the fire assessments were a more equitable way of paying for an essential service.
"It spreads the cost more fairly to everyone," said Spring Hill resident William Gilbert. "And I think it will ultimately make the county's fire department better in the long run."
Anthony Palmieri of Spring Hill, a frequent critic of the now-defunct Spring Hill fire district, had mixed views. While he said he supported the flat fee, he worried that the cost of the additional personnel would be too expensive for some residents. "I'm facing a 196 percent increase, and while that's not so bad for me, I worry for others who might not be able to afford that," Palmieri said. "I think it might be better to have come up with something more incremental."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.