SPRING HILL — Residents and backers of Spring Hill Fire Rescue were happy when their state representative agreed to introduce the necessary legislation to make the fire district independent.
But Rep. Robert Schenck's decision to seek a tax rate cap for the district that is lower than what they expected has fire board members angry and concerned about the department's fiscal future.
At Wednesday night's meeting, several residents demanded an explanation for why Schenck, R-Spring Hill, wants to lower the 2.75-mill cap that the board wants to 2.5 mills when he introduces the legislation this spring.
Board members said that Schenck never told them he intended to lower the millage cap when the county's state delegation met in late December in Brooksville.
Residents accused Schenck of going against the wishes of voters who approved a maximum ad valorem tax rate of 2.75 when they approved the independence referendum in November. The current tax rate is 2.286 mills.
"This isn't what the people voted for," Spring Hill resident Ken Fagan told fire commissioners. He added that residents would take the brunt of any cutbacks in the fire services because of budget shortfalls caused by the lower tax rate.
Schenck said Thursday that the uproar at the meeting surprised him. He said he never heard from any of the board members prior to delegation meeting.
"I understood that we had a consensus on that figure," said Schenck.
He said that with state budget cuts looming, a lower tax rate for the Spring Hill fire district would be in everyone's best interest.
Limiting the cap to 2.5 mills, however, would cause problems for the fire department if tax revenues fall short, commissioners said. "I see problems coming down the road in 2010, 2011 if we're limited to 2.5," said Commissioner Rob Giammarco.
District Chief Mike Rampino said that although it would be tough, he would work with less revenue if necessary. "They've given us a lower number and we're going to go with that lower number," Rampino said.
Schenck said he intends to meet with Spring Hill fire commissioners soon to "see if we can come to some understanding."
Once completed, Schenck intends to introduce the bill to lawmakers during the regular legislative session in March. If it is granted, the fire district would still be under state oversight.
In related news, fire commissioners unanimously approved a four-year contract for Rampino that will continue to pay him $88,800 a year, with a provision for an annual raise of up to 3 percent. But Rampino said that if tight finances mean firefighters do not get a raise, he will forgo his, too.
Board Chairman Leo Jacobs, who led the effort in December to make Rampino the permanent chief, said Rampino deserved the job.
"He's been tested," Jacobs said. "We need to assure him that we respect what he's done."
Rampino, 45, has led the 118-employee district since early 2008, when Chief J.J. Morrison stepped down, and is the first chief since voters gave the district its independence from county government in the referendum.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 848-1435.