SPRING HILL — Two years ago, voters in Spring Hill gave the green light to creating a fire district independent of county oversight. Although the initiative garnered 57 percent approval, the question of whether to make Spring Hill Fire Rescue its own taxing authority was left to another time.
That time has come. On Aug. 24, voters will be asked to give the five-member fire board the power to set a property tax rate of up to 2.5 mills, the limit set by the state Legislature when it signed off on the 2008 referendum.
One mill produces $1 in tax for each $1,000 of taxable real property value.
Proponents of the referendum say it will remove the last vestiges of control by outside interests, leaving the district to make its own way. Opponents contend that a "yes" vote could pave the way for other assessments, including a tangible property tax on businesses. Such a measure was briefly enacted last year before the board reversed itself.
The issue has already drawn considerable fire on both sides. Last month, the union representing the district's firefighters and paramedics sent voters a mailer claiming that a "no" vote would cause the millage cap to jump to 2.75 mills. Union president Scott Edmiston wrote that a "yes" vote would be an affirmation by taxpayers that they "agree with the policy of keeping your property tax rate lower."
But according to assistant county attorney Jon Jouben, the county has only one more year of authority to collect property taxes on behalf of the district, and that it must abide by the 2.5 millage cap set by the Legislature. If the referendum fails, the independent Spring Hill Fire Rescue District must take its appeal to the Legislature, which will likely order that the taxing authority question be put back on the ballot in 2012.
The district's 2010-11 budget is banking on a raise from its present 2.268 mils to the 2.5 millage cap. But with declining property values, even that won't eliminate an estimated $500,000 budget shortfall. For now, the district has enough reserves to cover the deficit, but questions remain as to how it will meet its future budget needs.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.