Saturday, May 26, 2018
News Roundup

Is it time for Brooksville to lose its fire and police departments?

Brooksville Vice Mayor Kevin Hohn has a bold idea to save the city money: Get rid of the Fire Department.

Here's my even bolder one: Dump the Brooksville Police Department.

The brief and, I think, compelling argument to turn city fire protection over to Hernando County goes like this:

Next fiscal year the city will charge a fire assessment that, for a home worth $100,000, comes to $161. That's $10 lower than the county's newly approved fee. But the county's assessment covers its entire fire budget while Brooksville's fee accounts for less than half, with the remaining $909,000 of the $1.6 million budget coming out of the city's general fund.

That suggests the county could do the job cheaper and, I bet, without compromising the current high level of service — especially if the county's contract with the city requires it to maintain a fully staffed station in Brooksville.

And if the county's merger with Spring Hill Fire Rescue is any guide, the hand-over of city fire service to the county wouldn't have to cost a lot of jobs.

The city Police Department, like the Fire Department, does good work, as far as I can tell.

But it's expensive, with a proposed 2013-14 budget of $2.2 million, or about one-third of the city's $6.7 million general fund.

And city taxpayers get slammed twice when it comes to law enforcement charges — paying big bucks for a police force and for a sheriff's office that doesn't directly serve them. More than 40 percent of their county property taxes are consumed by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.

So, the city could argue that it already pays its fair share of the sheriff's budget, meaning the sheriff is obligated to take over service without any additional funding.

In reality, it seldom works that way. The many cities in Florida that rely on counties to provide law enforcement usually have to fork over a contract fee, on the somewhat questionable theory that cities require a higher level of service.

Even so, this fee can be a lot cheaper than funding a separate department.

Look, for example, at Inverness, which disbanded its Police Department nine years ago.

The goal was not saving money, but improving performance, which is just what has happened under the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, said Inverness City Manager Frank DiGiovanni.

"It has worked out and is working out very well," DiGiovanni said.

Savings, though, have been a nice benefit.

Inverness never budgeted as much for its Police Department as Brooksville, despite having nearly as large a population — about 7,200 compared with 7,700. But law enforcement costs in Inverness have dropped even further since the county took over, from slightly more than $1 million a year to $700,000, or about one-third the cost in Brooksville.

How about the argument that the loss of police and fire departments means a loss of identity as a city?

Hasn't happened in Inverness, DiGiovanni said. Civic pride has climbed in recent years, partly because more money is available for sprucing up downtown and upgrading infrastructure.

Which is a big reason why contracting police and fire protection might be good for Brooksville, Hohn said. Among the city's many needs: $8 million of work on roads that a recent engineer's study found to be severely neglected.

The city budget is nearly set this year, meaning's Hohn's suggestion is just the beginning of a discussion, which is a good thing.

This is a big decision, with lots of issues to consider, including whether the county's flat fee is fair to low-income city residents.

But for a long time, the City Council was afraid to seriously talk about making major changes to its extremely popular police and fire departments. I get the feeling that's changing, partly because some residents of Southern Hills Plantation Club, on the south edge of Brooksville, feel unfairly burdened by city taxes.

Whether they are right or wrong about this, several of them have said they think it's time to look closer at city police and fire service.

They're definitely right about that.

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