SPRING HILL — Few subjects seem to evoke the ire of a community's residents like a battle over essential services.
Talk to anyone who has followed the dizzying escapades involving the Hernando County Commission and Spring Hill Fire Rescue District in recent years, and you begin to see why so many residents have grown weary of the fight.
Although a Nov. 4 referendum calls for a decision on whether to make Spring Hill Fire Rescue an independent district, the question seems to be about much more than just who will control the community's fire and emergency medical services. A divisive split finds neighbors sparring in a match being refereed by a contentious fire board and supported by a well-heeled firefighters union.
To the unincorporated area's 78,000 residents, the battle may seem like deja vu. A 1992 referendum asking voters whether they wanted to create an independent Fire District fell short. Voters again rebuffed the proposal in 2002.
After humble beginnings as a volunteer fire department when Spring Hill began to develop in the late 1960s, the district was created by the County Commission in 1973, and a subsequent referendum saw voters spell out how the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District would be run. A board of five elected, unpaid officials would have the power to oversee all department matters and would have the power to tax residents for fire and emergency services.
By all accounts, things ran smoothly, with the district adding fire stations, equipment and staffing as the community grew. But in 1989, a flap erupted when the state Department of Community Affairs told Hernando County that its total property tax rate exceeded the state's 10-mill limit. The county was collecting 7.96 mills countywide and another 2.75 mills through the Spring Hill Fire District.
Contending that the mills should be considered separately, the county managed to wiggle free from the 10-mill cap by making the Fire District a municipal services benefit unit, a special taxing district to fund specific services, while keeping budget control in the hands of the county.
In November 1992, voters shot down a bid for independence. Ten years later, the matter — this time heavily backed by the district firefighters union — was met with defeat again.
The current referendum was born out of a disagreement a couple of years ago about whether Spring Hill should continue dispatching its own emergency calls or whether all 911 dispatching should be done by the county from its new emergency operations center in Brooksville.
No agreement was reached. So now, when a call for fire-rescue service in Spring Hill comes in to the EOC, it is transferred to Spring Hill Fire Rescue for dispatch. Continued debate about the extent to which county government has the authority to control the district led to threats of litigation.
The compromise: an agreement to put another independence referendum on the ballot.
This referendum, being supported by a $10,000 campaign paid for by Firefighters for an Independent District, a political action committee formed by Local 2794, comes with a twist. A yes vote, said fire Commissioner Rob Giammarco, could allow the fire board to increase the property tax rate from its present 2.286 mills to 2.75 mills, if commissioners choose to do so.
"That's another reason to hate it," said Giammarco, who is up for re-election but supports turning complete control of the district over to the county, claiming it would save taxpayers money.
"A lot of people don't believe me when I tell them, but it's right there in black and white," he said. "If you vote to make an independent district, you're also voting to allow them to increase your property taxes. It's crazy."
Spring Hill Fire's interim Chief, Mike Rampino, believes the matter will likely come down to whom residents trust most. And no one, he says, seems certain just what the county has in mind if it takes over the department.
"A lot of questions don't seem to have any answers at the moment," Rampino told residents at a recent town hall meeting. "All I know is that if things change, it's going to be hard to go back to the way it was."
Hernando County Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben said Thursday that the referendum's intentions are quite clear. If residents reject the bid for independence, the Fire District would remain essentially unchanged, for the time being, except that the department would be overseen by the County Commission instead of the present fire board; the fire commission would no longer exist.
Fire equipment and personnel would remain where they are, Jouben said, and the county would operate the municipal services taxing unit that allows the district to collect and spend money.
As for the Fire District's future, County Administrator David Hamilton said there would be a period of evaluation by his office to see what works best for residents. In a memo to the commission last week, Hamilton said his staff has already identified potential cost savings in the areas of administrative support and communications that would save taxpayers $544,000.
"We believe the numbers speak for themselves," Hamilton said.
Fire District officials have acknowledged that they would have to hire full- or part-time personnel to handle budgetary matters, human resources and information technology should the district become independent. The county currently provides some of those services.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or 848-1435.