SPRING HILL — When Spring Hill residents chose to make their fire district an independent body in 2008, few could have predicted the chaos that would ensue three years later, after those same voters failed to grant the entity the authority to levy and collect its own property taxes.
As the calendar creeps toward the Sept. 30 expiration of an interlocal agreement that for the past two years has allowed county government to collect the taxes on behalf of the district, the reality has begun to sink in: Spring Hill Fire Rescue could be in financial jeopardy should the latest, last-ditch tax referendum effort fail.
The special referendum that begins this week — with all voting by mail — will ask residents to reverse an August 2010 referendum that saw 59 percent of voters in 28 precincts balk at giving the independent district its own taxing powers. It is the end result of a back-and-forth shuffle that in recent weeks has pitted the district's interests against those of the county.
"It's been a bouncing ball that's been hard to follow at times," said Spring Hill Chief Mike Rampino. "It's now up to the people to decide in what fashion they want to see their district operate."
Back in 2008, voters deciding on the district's independence didn't have that option. The original nonbinding referendum never asked residents how they intended for the entity to pay for its services. The Florida Legislature, which created the special district in 2009, had no constitutional authority to grant taxing powers.
"It was pretty much assumed that the voters who supported independence would also vote to allow the district to fund itself," longtime Spring Hill fire commission observer Harry Chamberlain said. "There was really no other viable alternative."
But when voters refused that request in the August referendum, it ultimately set the stage for the current quandary that many feel has made the district something of a political football.
District officials had hoped to skirt having to pay for a costly special election by including the referendum on the presidential primary ballot early next year. But that idea had to be abandoned when county commissioners refused to extend the existing interlocal taxing agreement for another year.
Also, without a continuing revenue stream, the district will run out of operating funds by January.
This week, 72,000 Spring Hill voters will begin receiving mail-out ballots asking them once again to grant the district its own taxing authority. The election, which is expected to cost Spring Hill taxpayers about $153,000, is being paid for out of the fire district's reserves.
The district has also committed additional funding for an informational brochure that it plans to send to 36,000 homes.
If the referendum passes, the district will continue operations in the same fashion. If it fails, the district will have only a few months of reserve funds with which to operate before it must eventually appeal to the state and the county for financial help.
What does the referendum question ask of voters?
The referendum asks Spring Hill voters to give the independent fire rescue district the authority to levy and collect ad valorem taxes up to 2.5 mills on the assessed value of their property. That's the same rate that county government currently is collecting for the district. (A mill is $1 of tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.)
Why is the referendum being conducted by mail?
The fire commission decided that a mail ballot would be the most efficient and cost-effective way of holding the special election. Due to time constraints, it was the only way to meet the June 15 deadline for providing tax information to the county Property Appraiser's Office.
How will the mail referendum work?
All eligible voters in the district will receive a ballot through the mail. Each will include a security sleeve, plus an envelope with first-class return postage. Signed ballots must be returned to the Hernando County Supervisor of Elections Office no later than 7 p.m. June 15. (A June 15 postmark on a ballot will not suffice.)
As an alternative to mailing the ballot back, voters may bring their ballots to either the main elections office in Room 165 of the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Brooksville, or the branch office at 7443 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Final tabulation of the ballots will begin after voting closes June 15.
If voters approve the referendum, can the Spring Hill Fire Rescue board impose any additional fees or assessments?
Yes, the fire commission could decide to levy non-ad valorem assessments, including user fees, fire inspection fees and tangible personal property tax on businesses. However, by law, the district cannot levy a property tax of more than 2.5 mills without voter approval.
What would happen with a "no" vote?
So far, nothing has been decided. However, according to a contingency plan drawn up by County Administrator David Hamilton, fire and rescue services in Spring Hill would essentially remain the same after Oct. 1, which is the beginning of the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Estimates are that the district could operate on its reserves until mid January. After that, the fire board could appeal to Gov. Rick Scott's office to place the district under the oversight of the Hernando County Commission. Under Hamilton's scenario, the district would continue operating with its 2.5-mill cap for about two years. It would also keep the Spring Hill firefighters union contract in place through its conclusion in September 2013.
In the meantime, a task force would be put together to oversee the permanent consolidation of the district and its assets with the county's fire-rescue operation.
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or email@example.com.