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Hernando fire rescue funding becomes more complex with Spring Hill merger

BROOKSVILLE — Figuring out how to finance the newly merged operations of Hernando County's two major fire-rescue operations will likely take longer than originally anticipated.

Based on a recommendation by county public safety director Mike Nickerson, county commissioners chose Tuesday to begin working toward a new municipal service benefit unit to at least partially fund fire and rescue operations in the merger of the defunct Spring Hill Fire Rescue District with the county's fire-rescue service.

The measure would buy time while the county negotiates a new contract with firefighters next year and works toward establishing a more finely tuned funding methodology based on real budget projections and input from residents.

Creation of an MSBU would not lock the county into a particular funding methodology because commissioners would have the option of not voting to fund it.

In his presentation before the commission, Nickerson said that although housing values in the county continue to fall — reducing the amount of revenue property taxes generate — the cost of providing fire and rescue services has risen steadily. Although merging the two departments has provided some cost savings, the lack of adequate funding has hampered the county's ability to adequately maintain an experienced staff.

Nickerson outlined an array of possible funding scenarios based on rough revenue projections and future personnel needs. But commissioners pretty much agreed that none of the methodologies spread the responsibility of paying equitably for fire protection.

"The chart has a lot of numbers," Chairman Wayne Dukes told Nickerson. "But the bottom line is getting a fire truck to someone's home and everybody having an equal share of the pie."

Dissolved by the Florida Legislature earlier this year after Spring Hill voters twice failed to give their former independent district its own taxing authority, Spring Hill's fire and rescue operations are currently funded through a municipal service taxing unit that charges homeowners a tax rate of 2.5 mills per $1,000 of assessed property value. Property owners in the county are currently charged an annual flat fee of $194.87 for services.

The tax on property owners in the Spring Hill Fire Rescue district expires after the 2012-13 budget year.

Because of falling home values, Nickerson said, Spring Hill property owners would need to pay a tax rate of 3.62 mills next year in order to maintain current service levels. But the MSBU has a cap of 2.5 mills.

Under a funding methodology supported by fire officials, future service would be paid for by a combination of a property tax for fire service and a separate fixed fee for emergency medical services. While some homeowners would see a decrease in what they now pay, others, including owners or property that is currently exempt from taxes, would begin paying at least something for their service through the fee.

Under a revised time line, Nickerson said he hopes to have a methodology based on the temporary MSBU ready to present to commissioners in November or early December.

Public hearings will follow.

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@tampabay.com.

Hernando fire rescue funding becomes more complex with Spring Hill merger 08/07/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 7, 2012 8:23pm]
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