SPRING HILL — The beginning of the end for the 37-year-old Spring Hill Fire Rescue District came Wednesday with a solemn — and rare — unanimous vote from its governing body.
Faced with no way to continue collecting tax revenue, the Fire Board elected to dissolve the independent district and begin consolidation talks with Hernando County.
The four fire commissioners who were present took two separate votes; one to dissolve thedistrict and a second to begin the process of consolidation with Hernando County Fire Rescue.
The decision came a month after voters rejected a referendum seeking to grant the independent district the authority to levy and collect property taxes.
County Commissioner John Druzbick told board members that dismantling the district was the only acceptable option in light of the decision by voters, who have twice denied the district its own taxing authority after voting in 2008 to give the district independence from the county.
"We're on a new road today," Druzbick said. "The vote of the public told us this is the way to go."
Commissioners Sherry Adler, Ken Fagan, Amy Brosnan and Rob Giammarco never debated the issue. Board member John Pasquale was absent from the meeting.
Afterward, district Chief Mike Rampino said he believes a clearer picture of what the decision means will emerge in the coming weeks.
"We have a lot of watching and waiting to do," Rampino said. "Meanwhile, we still have a department to run and equipment to keep rolling. That part of what we do won't change much in the foreseeable future."
The board's decision allows the district to formally declare a financial emergency with the state. Once emergency status is granted, the county will be able to step in and set up a plan to merge Spring Hill's fire and rescue operations with its own. That scenario will likely involve an interlocal agreement allowing for county use of all Spring Hill personnel and assets until dissolution of the district.
Assistant County Attorney Jon Jouben told commissioners that he and fire district attorney Andrew Salzman have been working on a plan that would either put the district into receivership to the county or simply merge the operations through an interlocal agreement until the district is dissolved by the Florida Legislature.
Although yet to be given a formal hearing, a plan drawn up by County Administrator David Hamilton would give the county the authority, under a municipal services taxing unit, to continue collecting the 2.5-mill property tax rate the Spring Hill district now has in place.
Hamilton's proposal calls for no immediate changes in fire and rescue services for the district's 92,000 residents. The county would continue to honor the department's contract with its firefighters union through September 2013. No fire stations would be closed or moved for at least two years.
Consolidation of the two fire and rescue entities has been a much-debated topic over the past two decades. Despite appeals from residents and disgruntled fire board members, the County Commission never seriously considered the issue until 2007, when Commissioner Dave Russell drafted an ordinance that would have dissolved the fire board. The motion failed by a 3-2 vote.
In 2008, Spring Hill voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum that led to the creation of an independent district by the Legislature. But the electorate's mood had changed by August of last year, and a referendum asking for taxing authority failed.
With time running out on an interlocal agreement with the county to collect its taxes, district officials made one last-ditch effort to win over their constituents. Despite pouring nearly $200,000 into a special election by mail in June, the question failed again.
Although it has no funding mechanism, the district remains an independent entity until the Legislature official decides to dissolve it. That won't happen until at least next year.
Meanwhile, representatives from the district and county hope to meet with Spring Hill's legislative delegation within the next few weeks.
Commissioner Rob Giammarco, who has long favored a consolidation plan, said he expects the fire board to continue meeting at least until September, but added that he wouldn't mind if the board is dissolved sooner.
"The way I see it," Giammarco said, "we're just a formality now."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.