SPRING HILL — Tuesday's defeat of the referendum that would have finally cleared the path toward independence for the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District was a surprise to many who supported independence in the 2008 election.
According to unofficial results released by the Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Office, 7,512 Spring Hill residents voted against Tuesday's taxing authority referendum while votes in favor of the measure totaled 5,213.
The defeat has left open the question of how the district will collect tax money in years to come. The most likely scenario, at this point, is that the district will have to ask the county to continue collecting the revenue.
Despite being voted down by more than 59 percent of those who cast ballots in 28 precincts, some think the question of giving the district the legal authority to assess and collect taxes should be presented to voters again.
"I think there's a case that can be made for that," said district Fire Chief Mike Rampino. "Even though we did our best to sell our side of the referendum, we may not have made it clear that it wasn't a new tax. I think that may have factored into the outcome."
Spring Hill Fire Commissioner Leo Jacobs agreed, saying that confusion over the issue seemed to rule from the start.
"A lot of politics comes into play when you start talking about taxes," Jacobs said. "You can try, but sometimes you just can't fight it."
Although returning the measure to the ballot will be the fire board's decision, one thing is clear: It won't be on the Nov. 2 general election ballot. Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said her office is already preparing those ballots, and any such request would have already had to be made through the County Commission.
"There's no way I can foresee it being on the ballot," Williams said.
Fire commission candidate Harry Chamberlain thinks bringing the matter before voters again would be a useless exercise. He thinks even if the question were to be put before voters in a general election, the outcome would be the same.
"I think the vote reflected the lack of confidence that taxpayers have for the commission more than anything else," Chamberlain said. "Unless the attitude toward the board improves, I don't think voter opinion on the matter is going to change much."
As it stands, the district has one more year on its agreement with the county to collect its property taxes, which by mandate can be no higher the 2.50 mills. After that, a new interlocal agreement would have to be drafted, according to Jon Jouben, an assistant county attorney.
Rep. Robert Schenck, who sponsored the legislative bill last year that created the independent district, said the problem of how Spring Hill Fire's taxes will be collected stems from the original independence referendum that went before voters in 2008.
"The taxing provision should have been written into that referendum," Schenck said Wednesday. "Now they're stuck with what they've got."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.