SPRING HILL — With the matter of how they will fund operations next year still unresolved, Spring Hill Fire Rescue representatives go before the County Commission on Tuesday to ask Hernando to keep collecting property taxes for the district.
Fire Chief Mike Rampino said this week the district's lawyers are proposing a stopgap measure to keep in place an interlocal agreement with the county until the district can establish its own taxing authority.
The current agreement, put in place after residents voted in 2008 to make the district independent from the county, is set to expire Sept. 30. After that, the county will no longer have legal authority to collect taxes for the district.
"We're in a predicament," Rampino said. "And this is the most cost-effective way of dealing with the issue."
Last year, Spring Hill residents voted not to give the district authority to collect taxes. Without a new agreement, the district must find another way to pay for fire and rescue services or face the possibility of shutting down its operations.
The district wants the county to create a special entity called a municipal services taxing unit to levy taxes on its behalf. However, in a memo last week to Commissioner Jim Adkins, assistant county attorney Jon Jouben said that doing so might create legal problems for the county.
"If the county … created a MSTU to levy taxes on Spring Hill Fire's behalf, the county would be re-creating the arrangement that the voters have rejected," Jouben wrote.
If a court found the levy to be unconstitutional, the county would be unable to get the money back from Spring Hill Fire that would have already been spent on the district's operating costs, Jouben wrote.
The fire district's attorney, Terry Lewis, disputed Jouben's claim in a letter to Adkins. He said a judge's order in 2009 allowing Hernando County to collect Spring Hill Fire's taxes through Sept. 30 did not prevent the creation of an MSTU.
Adkins said he told Lewis he had reservations about putting the county in legal jeopardy and told him to figure out how to fix the problem in a way that is "aboveboard and legal.''
"Knowingly, I will not put a lawsuit on our taxpayers,'' Adkins said. "It shouldn't be on our table anyway'' because the original referendum should have tied the district's independence to taxing authority.
Rampino said that if the interlocal agreement is not renewed, the district will most likely look at holding a special referendum to once again ask voters to give the district its own taxing authority.
"That would be a costly route to take," Rampino said. "And I don't think that's something the public wants to see at this point."
Staff writer Barbara Behrendt contributed to this report. Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.