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Top stories of 2011: Merger of Spring Hill and county fire services moves forward

SPRING HILL — For more than four decades, the community of Spring Hill owned and operated its own fire and rescue service. Run by a five-member volunteer board, the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District was the only form of organized, local government in Spring Hill.

All of that ended, however, in 2011 after voters — who three years before overwhelmingly supported the idea of an independent district — twice refused to grant the district the power to levy and collect property taxes to fund services. The second mail-ballot referendum, held in June, drew the interest of less than a quarter of the district's electorate.

For former Spring Hill fire Commissioner Rob Giammarco, that said plenty. Giammarco, who often criticized fellow board members for "rubber stamping" district business, said that the board had lost its credibility with the public.

"In the end, even people who fought for an independent district no longer thought it was a good idea," Giammarco said. "They saw us as a huge joke."

Through the years, the district's governing board had its share of embarrassments. Commission meetings often turned into free-for-all shouting matches between residents and those sitting on the dais. At a meeting in August, a commissioner who had just ordered the removal of two individuals during the citizens comment period felt compelled to contact the Sheriff's Office because she said she feared for her safety.

Such bizarre scenarios did little to endear Spring Hill Fire Rescue to outsiders, especially county officials, who often saw the district as inefficiently run and prone to political and fire union pressure.

A month before the special election, the district launched a last-ditch legal move to force the county to continue collecting taxes on the district's behalf. The measure failed to garner support from county commissioners, who felt that doing so ignored the will of the voters.

The Oct. 1 merger of the district's assets with those of the county has had little impact on fire and rescue service, said Hernando County public safety director Mike Nickerson. The four existing fire stations still function as they did before, and the district's personnel and equipment remain intact. Mike Rampino remains chief of the district.

"Operationally, we're moving forward very smoothly," Nickerson said of the transition.

By January, he hopes to have a long-term logistical system in place that will make department functions such as the purchase of supplies and vehicle maintenance more seamless. Any restructuring of management also will be discussed.

Under an inter-local agreement, Spring Hill's fire service will remain separate from the county's until October 2013. Spring Hill taxpayers will continue to pay the 2.5-mill property tax they've been assessed in the past. Conversely, Hernando County charges a flat fee of $194.87 for fire protection, plus a small property tax for emergency medical services.

County Commissioner John Druzbick said that the merits and faults of both funding mechanisms will be a major point of discussion once commissioners begin budget negotiations next year. Several town hall meetings are planned that will allow residents to weigh in with their opinions as well.

"Fire and rescue are among the most important services that the county provides," Druzbick said. "I think the citizens expect us to come up with something that is fair and equitable and gets the job done."

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

Top stories of 2011: Merger of Spring Hill and county fire services moves forward 12/27/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 9:04pm]

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