BROOKSVILLE — The rhetoric was harsh and the meetings emotional as Spring Hill residents debated whether to keep Spring Hill Fire Rescue alive.
But after the votes were tallied and the community had failed to provide funding to keep the department independent, the focus turned to the future.
Now, a year and a half later, the county has formally agreed to the consolidation of the Spring Hill and Hernando County fire-rescue operations — effective Oct. 1. And County Administrator Len Sossamon has selected former Spring Hill Fire Chief Mike Rampino to lead the combined service as the county's public safety director.
While much of the process of pulling the agencies together is already accomplished, it will be under Rampino's guidance that the tricky monetary issues — how to pay for fire and rescue services and how to combine two union contracts — will be settled.
Rampino told the Times last week that he has been pleasantly surprised how firefighter/emergency medical technicians from both agencies left any lingering animosity behind as they have worked toward combining forces. Even when Sossamon picked Rampino over former county Fire Chief Mike Nickerson, Rampino said he felt nothing but welcomed into the new position.
"It's been positive,'' he said of the reaction.
The collective feeling from the employees has been professional, and they are ready to move ahead, he said.
Nickerson will serve under Rampino, but his new title and duties have still not been worked out. Recently, he has been overseeing Animal Services. But with the new managing veterinarian having started Thursday at the animal shelter, those duties are ending.
Rampino, who will be paid $97,952 a year, said he is excited about the new challenge.
"Obviously, Mike Nickerson and I have a great working relationship,'' he said. "Mike and I will continue to work together like we have all along.''
That means the two will "check our alpha males'' at the door, he said, and work side by side toward what is best for the community.
While Rampino's experience in Spring Hill means he knows what it is like to work within a budget, he also said he will fight for his employees if he believes their safety is being compromised.
When he announced that Rampino would lead the merged operation, Sossamon said he struggled to choose between two good, experienced men.
Last week, he explained that Rampino impressed him with being very responsive to whatever requests he has made of him. He gives clear and complete presentations, and "he's cool and calm and doesn't appear to get rattled,'' Sossamon said.
Rampino, 49, came to Florida from Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was in middle school. He struggled as a young man to decide on a vocation, picking firefighting while he was taking classes at Pasco-Hernando Community College. In 1986, he started work as a firefighter in Pasco County.
Two years later, he signed on with Spring Hill Fire Rescue, rising through the ranks to become chief in 2007.
He calls his management style "participatory" and notes that he is not a micro-manager. Because those who work in the field are so highly trained, he said he doesn't expect that anyone he will oversee is unqualified or unprepared for their job.
Later this spring, as the County Commission begins to prepare the county's 2013-14 budget, Rampino anticipates a lot of discussion about how to pay for the combined fire and emergency medical service.
In the past, Spring Hill residents have paid a property tax. Property owners with county fire-rescue service have paid a flat fee for fire service and an extra assessment on their property tax bills for emergency medical services.
Rampino said he anticipates that some hybrid method will be adopted for the combined service. The County Commission has also discussed a possible referendum for a 1-cent sales tax, which, if approved, would require the county to scale back other funding mechanisms.
The other unresolved issue facing Rampino is the merger of the two union contracts under Professional Firefighters Local 3760. Although much of the language in the existing two agreements is similar, there are differences in benefits packages and pay scales, which are typically the most contentious issues at the bargaining table.
Both groups have already been invited to begin negotiations, and Rampino said he hopes to see the same level of cooperation he has seen throughout the consolidation process.
"I think it will go well,'' he said.
Rampino said that what excites him about the job ahead is simple: completion of the consolidation.
"They did a lot very, very well, and we did a lot very, very well'' as separate departments, Rampino said.
"Now we're taking the best of both systems and molding them into a high-functioning department that works for both the community and the taxpayers.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.