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Spring Hill Fire Rescue tax flares up with little notice

SPRING HILL — The first public notice that the Spring Hill Fire Rescue board was considering a new tax on businesses came Monday in a meeting agenda item. By Wednesday, the proposal had been approved.

Now, it's headed to the County Commission for formal approval, possibly as soon as Tuesday.

At least one fire commissioner says he was being blindsided.

"It came like a bolt out of the blue," said Rob Giammarco, who said he learned of the idea when he saw in on the board's agenda late Monday.

Giammarco, who cast the lone dissenting vote at Wednesday's meeting, said he spent much of Friday morning fielding angry calls from residents.

"Considering how businesses are struggling, this is the worst time to consider adding any kind of new tax," Giammarco said. "People won't stand for it, and I don't blame them."

The district has been looking for ways to close the gap in an expected $1.3 million budget shortfall, district financial director Terri McClanahan said. She said on Thursday the idea of a proposed tangible tax was first brought up at a budget meeting July 16.

Giammarco, who was at the meeting, said he barely remembered it being mentioned. "We didn't discuss it to any degree," he said.

The tangible personal property tax, which would apply to any items inside a business that are used to conduct the business — such as shelving, computers and other equipment — could bring an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 to the district's accounts.

An exemption on the first $25,000 worth of equipment would spare most small businesses.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart, Best Buy and other large businesses such as Spring Hill Regional Hospital, a for-profit company, would pay a tax rate of $2.2686 per thousand dollars on any equipment valued at more that $25,000.

The proposal is supposed to go before county commissioners for approval Tuesday in order to make the deadline for upcoming tax bills.

It remained surrounded by questions Friday, with few people available to answer them.

Fire Chief Michael Rampino was away all week and did not attend Wednesday's meeting. Finance director McClanahan was also gone. The district's attorney, Andy Salzman, did not return phone calls to his office.

Even fire board Chairman Leo Jacobs, an ardent supporter of the tax, was unaware of some important details.

Hernando County already collects tangible property taxes from businesses countywide, including within the city of Brooksville and the fire district. The new tax, if approved, would be double taxation for businesses within the Spring Hill fire district.

Had he known the county was collecting a similar tax on businesses in Spring Hill, he said, he might have voted differently.

"I might," Jacobs said. "You don't want to do anything that's not fair to everyone."

Nick Nikkinen, director of special projects for the Hernando County Property Appraiser's Office, said that there is "a lot of mystery" about the tax.

"I haven't heard a word from anyone in the fire district this week," Nikkinen said.

Nor have many others. As of Friday afternoon, the resolution had not been listed on the agenda for Tuesday's commission meeting.

Though Spring Hill residents voted overwhelmingly in November to make the fire district independent, its power to impose taxes by itself won't be voted on until August 2010.

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

Spring Hill Fire Rescue tax flares up with little notice 07/24/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 7:01pm]
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