BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County Commission is expecting a lively debate Tuesday over how taxpayers will pay for the services of the newly merged county and Spring Hill fire and rescue services.
The proposal, which will be presented in a public hearing, calls for adopting a maximum annual fee of $171.44 for each property owner for fire service and a 0.5598 millage assessment for emergency medical services.
"There are a lot of opinions about it out there, and I guess we're going to hear them," offered Hernando County Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes.
Along with other commissioners, he's heard from Spring Hill property owners who currently pay a 2.5 mill ad valorem tax for such services and are likely to be the most affected by the change.
Not surprising, many aren't happy, especially those whose property is worth less than the $50,000 the state exempts from taxation, said Commissioner Dave Russell.
"To people whose property has always been exempt I imagine there would be some opposition," Russell offered this week. "But overall, I think it's more equitable to have everyone contribute."
The proposal being presented by public safety director Mike Rampino is the result of months of study by county staff and was chosen over other options. These included a hybrid mix of flat fees and charges based on property value for fire service. That option, Rampino said, still exists should the commission decide to go that route.
Key to the proposal that would go into effect Oct. 1 would be the inclusion of the formerly independent Spring Hill Fire District's 48,000 residential properties. For county residential customers who are currently paying an annual flat fee of $194.87 for fire service, the proposed rate would mean a savings of $23.43 a year.
But for some Spring Hill residents, whose fire and rescue service is currently tied to the taxable value of their property, a flat fee would likely mean an increase, especially if most or all of the value of their home is exempt. In addition, churches, which were not included in Spring Hill Fire Rescue's assessment, would be charged under the new plan.
The measure being offered lays out a budget totaling $27.4 million that seeks to bring the consolidated department to a higher standard by adding 18 new firefighters. This would enable emergency vehicles to be staffed by a three-person crew.
According to Rampino, the added expense would be offset by $600,000 in savings through the absorption of administrative positions, plus additional concessions gained through recent labor negotiations between the firefighters unions.
Russell and Dukes say their biggest quibble with the proposal so far is the numbers. Both feel that the proposal is too expensive and that the addition of new personnel needs a closer look.
"I haven't seen anything that justifies adding manpower that will cost an extra $900,000," Dukes said. "And I don't think you're going to see it fly with a lot of people either."
Russell suggested that adding personnel would be best done incrementally while the department concentrates on finding other ways to shave expenses.
"I don't oppose properly staffing our fire trucks, but it should be something we work toward over time," Russell said.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.