SPRING HILL — Declining property values and receding tax revenues continue to make for tough choices when it comes to public safety.
On Wednesday, however, the Spring Hill Fire Rescue board — short two members — voted 2-1 to maintain its present level of service by authorizing a 2.50 millage rate to fund the department in the coming fiscal year.
In presenting the budget measure, district Chief Mike Rampino assured commissioners that he and financial director Terri McClanahan had done all they could to hold down expenses in the face of a 15 percent drop in property values that will mean $492,000 less in revenue.
As it is, Rampino said, he is laying off nine employees and forgoing the replacement of department vehicles and other equipment. Additional layoffs could be coming.
"There are no frills here," Rampino said of the proposed $14.4 million budget that is $858,000 less than last year.
But upping the district's current millage rate from 2.286 to 2.50 won't be enough to cure all the department's fiscal woes. Rounding out the shortfall will require the district to once again dip into its reserves.
In August, residents will vote on a referendum to allow the district to raise the millage rate cap to 2.50. The final budget hearing will be in September.
Rampino's budget needs were immediately challenged by Commissioner Rob Giammarco, who suggested a 10 percent across-the-board spending cut.
Rampino responded sharply that such cuts would jeopardize the safety of his employees and the public.
The chief said that because negotiations with union firefighters are still ongoing, it would be difficult to estimate what savings might come from personnel costs. However, if the proposed millage rate increase is rejected, he may be forced to make further staff cuts.
The budget squeeze comes at a time when the department is seeing a significant increase in emergency calls, Rampino said.
"It's not going to get better any time soon," he said "We've become a cheaper alternative to the emergency room."
Several residents expressed their views on how to deal with the financial crunch. David Green suggested the district consider adopting a flat fee that would be collected from every property owner, including those currently exempt from the tax rolls.
Dave Parker thought money could be saved if firefighters agreed to pay cuts. "These are tough times," he said "If people want jobs, they need to make sacrifices."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 848-1435.