Votes leave Spring Hill Fire Rescue District in financial limbo

SPRING HILL — Two years ago, voters here decided they wanted the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District to be independent of other governmental entities.

By last year, the tide had turned. The same percentage of voters who favored creating the district decided in August not to give the district the legal taxing authority.

The defeat of the referendum, which would have granted the district power to assess and collect taxes, created something of a conundrum.

As it stands, the current agreement gives Hernando County the authority to collect property taxes until Sept. 30. How the district will fund itself after that date is still anyone's guess.

Spring Hill Fire Commissioner Ken Fagan said last week that he had yet to hear from anyone from the county or the district on the matter.

He went Tuesday to the County Commission on behalf of the fire district to get the ball rolling.

"It's a mess," Fagan said. "It means we're having to play catch-up ball and time is running out fast."

Fire Chief Mike Rampino said fire district attorney Andrew Salzman has been looking into the matter but has yet to tell him what options will be available to the district.

Still, he has little worry that the matter will be resolved in time.

"I don't see it as be a big deal," the chief said. "People need to know that the fire trucks and ambulances will keep running. That's not going to change.

State Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, was adamant that the residents should not look for help from the state Legislature, which created the special district in 2009.

"It's really a local issue," said Schenck, who sponsored the 2008 bill that created the fire district. "It sounds as though the best thing would be to draft another interlocal agreement. It's out of our hands."

Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben said that because the district was created by a special act, extending the agreement may create a legal quagmire.

"In these matters, it's general law that prevails," Jouben said. "The Legislature gave the taxing authority question for the voters to ultimately decide. The fact that they said no makes the issue all the more complicated."

For years, the fire district relied on the county to collect its property taxes. But while voters were given the choice in 2008 to make the district independent in a nonbinding referendum, the question of whether to grant the district taxing authority had to wait until the next election cycle.

Spring Hill resident and former Fire Commission candidate Harry Chamberlain said that combining the two questions on the same ballot would have made things simpler.

"No one has been able to explain to me why they didn't (combine the issues)," Chamberlain said. "But at some point someone decided to play politics with it. And this what we got."

Fire Board Chairman Rob Giammarco thinks bringing the issue back before the voters any time soon would be a waste of time and money.

"I don't think the outcome would be any different," Giammarco said. "The voters are not stupid."

Whatever happens, the district doesn't have much time to waste, Giammarco said.

He wants to begin working on the district's budget in February and would prefer to have the fire district's taxing questions answered before the budget process begins in earnest this summer.

He said renewal of the interlocal agreement will be the top topic at a special Fire Board meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

"It concerns me that we haven't dealt with it until now," Giammarco said. "All this does is put us in another tight corner."

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

Votes leave Spring Hill Fire Rescue District in financial limbo 01/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 6:14pm]

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