SPRING HILL — Attend any meeting of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission and you will notice that things just aren't right. There is tension in the air from the opening invocation to the final rap of the gavel.
Many who have followed the five-member volunteer board over the years are familiar with the animosity. But with the district suffering from financial woes, a rising citizen discontent has emerged, making the edges of the interpersonal conflicts seem much sharper than before.
On Nov. 2, Spring Hill residents will be get to fill two open seats on the commission. Of the six candidates, two have previous experience in the district's decisionmaking process. The other four are novices.
All six candidates acknowledge the need for change, both in the way the board handles its own affairs and the district's financial interests. Most acknowledge that the recent defeat of a referendum that would have allowed the district to levy a property tax of up to 2.5 mills showed that voters lack confidence in the board.
Three candidates — Sherry Adler, Harry Chamberlain and Ken Fagan — have aligned themselves as reformers who believe that fiscal restraint and not additional tax revenue is what's needed to keep the present level of service.
Adler, 66, who calls herself a fiscal watchdog, believes that the district leadership is influenced too much by the firefighters union.
"Whatever the fire department wants, it gets, with no concern for who will pay for it," she said. "The taxpayers don't seem to have a voice."
Adler believes the best fix for the district's fiscal woes is an across-the-board cut in salaries. She also believes that the district would save money by privatizing its EMS services.
"Raising taxes isn't a good idea," she said.
Like Adler, Chamberlain said the district needs to tighten its financial belt. And that includes re-examining the district's plan to spend $1.3 million to rebuild Station 2, next door to the administration building.
"I don't see the need for it until our revenue situation becomes clearer," said Chamberlain, 66. "The prudent thing to do would be to repair the existing facility and wait and see for a couple of years."
Fagan, 73, also sees a need for conservative measures when it comes to fiscal matters. While he believes residents are well-served by highly trained personnel, he would like the board to examine the department's discretionary expenditures to see if other savings could be found.
The two candidates with previous board experience say the district's financial problems are more due to the sluggish economy than anything else.
Ben Edwards, 58, who was appointed to the board earlier this year to replace retiring Commissioner Gene Panozzo, believes that the district is in relatively good shape, but it must hold costs until property values improve.
"Due to the limits of the taxing system, the only thing that would help is a stronger economy," Edwards said in a candidate questionnaire.
George Biro, who lost a re-election bid to the board in 2008, and Guy "Rusty" Amore say that the district should do more to get revenue from the 2,600 homeowners whose residences are exempt from taxes because of their low value.
"A flat tax would ensure everyone pays his or her fair share," Biro, 67, wrote in a candidate questionnaire.
He also supports charging business fees for fire inspections.
Amore, 68, who describes the district's current status as being on "thin ice," also believes that the district should take another look at adding a tangible tax on businesses whose assets are valued over $25,000, something the board approved but later rejected last year.
Still, he believes the district needs to curb its spending habits.
All the tax revenue in the world isn't going to help if you can't balance your budget," Amore said. "Spending in the department needs to be brought under control."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]