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Spring Hill fire chief says district's financial woes worsening over time

SPRING HILL — For Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Rampino, time is the enemy for the financially strapped agency striving to protect and serve thousands of residents.

Each day and every call for service takes a toll on the vehicles and equipment needed to do the job. And when money is tight, as it has been for the past couple of years, making ends meet can be a daunting challenge.

For the past two months, Rampino and the district's finance department have been cobbling together a budget that takes into account a 15 percent drop in property values, which will mean $492,000 less in revenue, all the while addressing a growing demand for service.

The budget, which takes into consideration Rampino's request of the fire commission to raise the district's millage rate from 2.268 to 2.50 mills, isn't quite enough to balance the ledger. He's hoping that with some additional cost savings elsewhere, he might still be able to avoid staff layoffs.

Hired as district chief in 2008, Rampino immediately was thrown into a whirlwind of falling revenues and escalating costs. Fortunately, during the good times earlier this decade, the district managed to squirrel away enough reserves to help cushion the shortfalls of the past two years.

He's also won some concessions from the district's firefighters union that will help hold down costs and avoid layoffs.

Still, the chief worries about the future, especially if the downward property-value trends continue. Two weeks ago, voters decided not to grant the district authority to levy and collect its own taxes, keeping that responsibility for the foreseeable future in the county's hands. However, the 2.50 mills property tax cap established for the district by the Legislature last year probably will not be enough to overcome the demands, Rampino said.

"We're coming up on some major decisions soon," he said. "We have an aging fleet and aging equipment. At some point, we're going to have to address that."

Although Rampino understands that doing the job for the least amount of money may fundamentally sound simple, in reality it's not, he said.

"I can't relax safety standards just to save money," he said. "Putting less people on a fire truck than is required just invites trouble."

Spring Hill resident and fire commission candidate Harry Chamberlain thinks the district may have sold itself short on its 2008 bid for independence by not asking the Legislature to approve a millage cap of 2.75 instead of the 2.50 cap asked for by state Rep. Robert Schenck.

"They left themselves no wiggle room," Chamberlain said. "Now, they're finding that even 2.50 isn't enough to do the job."

Although Chamberlain thinks Rampino's proposed $14.4 million budget for 2010-11 is pretty much bare bones, he feels it leaves the district vulnerable to future considerations, such as staffing and maintaining a fifth station that a fire study showed is sorely needed.

According to Rampino, emergency response calls have increased from 10,725 in 2007 to 12,046 in 2009.

"We do what we can, but it's a strain," Rampino said. "We have a large elderly population, so it doesn't look like that trend is going to reverse itself anytime soon."

Chamberlain agrees, saying the district needs to quickly begin work on a plan to address future capital improvements. Though he believes more could be done to cut costs, he also feels it may be time to explore other revenue streams, including revisiting a tangible tax on businesses, an idea proposed last year that the fire board initially supported before abandoning.

"We're in a new era where I'm not sure the old way of thinking is going to work," Chamberlain said. "There's a ticking time bomb that's about to blow up in our faces."

Spring Hill fire chief says district's financial woes worsening over time 09/02/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 2, 2010 8:12pm]
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