Spring Hill Fire Rescue hearing on tax revenues postponed

SPRING HILL — The all-important date for a crucial court hearing on how Spring Hill Fire Rescue will pay for its operations after Sept. 30 had to be postponed because the lawyers' schedules didn't line up.

The drop-dead deadline to pay a printer tens of thousands of dollars to buy materials for a special election that may never happen was extended nearly a week.

And a county commissioner suggested that the election results that created the independent fire district be scrapped and that the county simply combine its fire services.

Thursday was just another hectic and confusing day in the ongoing saga of how the beleaguered fire board will pay its bills once a temporary agreement that allows Hernando County to collect the tax revenue ends in several months.

The board will have a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Monday at district headquarters, 3445 Bob Hartung Court, to try again to sort things out.

The district's lawyer, Andrew Salzman, had already secured a hearing before Circuit Court Judge William Swigert in Ocala on Monday to ask the judge to extend for a year the agreement with Hernando.

That is necessary because Spring Hill voters, who gave the district its independence in 2008, declined last year to give it the legal authority to levy taxes. The district wants to ask the voters again for the authority, but to do so during a regular election in 2012 instead of an expensive special election this year.

However, Monday didn't fit the schedules of county attorney Jon Jouben and Brooksville attorney Tom Hogan Jr., who is representing the Clerk of Court's Office in the matter. The earliest date that works for them is May 20.

That's a problem because the district is making provisions for a special mail-out election in June. Fire Commissioner Ken Fagan fears that the judge's ruling may not come before May 25, the deadline for mailing ballots to voters.

The property appraiser has already told the district the election must be conducted before June 14 to allow his office time to get the new assessments on tax bills if voters approve the referendum.

If there is no ruling by May 25, "It could mean that (the district's) fate is in the judge's hands," Fagan said.

The company that would print the ballots, Advanced Ballot Solutions of Tampa, on Thursday agreed to move the deadline to receive a down payment of half the $93,925 it will charge to print 67,471 ballots.

The printer's deadline had been Thursday; now, the district has until Wednesday to come up with the nearly $47,000.

Still, Fagan said that because of the later court date, the district could end up footing most of the cost of the special election whether it is held or not.

"It's been a tough situation all around for our district," Fagan said. "And it seems to be getting even tougher."

County Commissioner Jeff Stabins on Thursday suggested a way out.

He said the problems with the Spring Hill Fire Rescue funding situation can be simply solved by dusting off the fire study done in 2007, which recommended consolidating Spring Hill with the Hernando County Fire Rescue.

"It's something that ought to be discussed. It's the way more advanced civilizations handle their fire protection,'' he said.

Stabins said he realized that there has been a vote in favor of independence but he called it "a snapshot'' of how people felt at that time. There was another "snapshot'' vote last year when the residents of Spring Hill said they didn't want to give the district taxing authority.

He said the will of the voters was "schizophrenic" and that is was time for the County Commission to do what is best for the entire county.

"The benefits according to the study are immediate cost savings, hundreds of thousands if not more than a million dollars,'' said Stabins, the only commissioner who lives in the Spring Hill Fire District.

As for the other independent fire departments such as the Brooksville Fire Department and the volunteer departments in High Point and Hernando Beach, Stabins said they should also be welcomed to the table to have a conversation about consolidation.

"We should do it to save money, become more efficient and to enter the 21st century,'' he said. "It makes sense. We're a big county now.''

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

Spring Hill Fire Rescue hearing on tax revenues postponed 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:51pm]

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