You know those tragic, regrettable moments when our leaders have the chance to do something great and blow it?
One of them came along in April of 2007 when — happily unaware of how bad things could really get — county commissioners thought their relationship with the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission had reached an all-time, intolerable low.
With that in mind — and in an attempt to streamline operations — county Commissioner David Russell managed to bring the fire commission's very existence up for a vote. That's right, by a simple casting of three "yea" votes, the County Commission could have done away with the district, flat-out abolished it.
Russell didn't get those votes, of course, and we'll see why a little later. But, in the meantime, just think of the misery that could have been avoided: the pointless (always a handy word for describing this outfit) squabbling among fire commissioners, the court hearings, the referendums.
That includes the costly special mail-out election scheduled to begin in a couple of weeks. As you lucky folks in Spring Hill probably already know, you get to pay $150,000 to ask yourself the same question you said "no" to just last year: Do you want to authorize the district to levy a property tax to pay for fire and ambulance service?
Obviously, given the previous vote and the general popularity of taxes these days, this tax levy seems to have little chance of passing. Because fire commissioners recognize this, Spring Hill residents will have the additional privilege of paying up to $25,000 for education about the need for this taxing authority.
Or so-called education. As of Friday, the board planned to send out a brochure to residents that suggests that the county, if it were to assume control of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District, would have "the authority to raise the ad valorem tax rate from 2.5 mills up to 10 mills" for fire service.
Not quite. That 10 mills (a mill is $1 of tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value) is the total cap on countywide taxes, not the amount that can be charged for fire service. This information (or misinformation) is repeated in a side-by-side comparison of costs also printed in the brochure.
This apples-to-oranges cap on the total county millage rate, 10, looks pretty frightening against the Spring Hill district's 2.5. It's doubly alarming because the line next to it says the homestead tax exemption would not be allowed. That's true of the $194.87 flat fee for homeowners that accounts for most of the Hernando County Fire District's revenue. It's obviously not true of the county's general fund tax rate.
So, apparently, somebody needs to tell the fire commission that spreading misleading information doesn't qualify as education.
Back to the 2007 vote. Then-county Commissioner Diane Rowden had previously said she would vote to abolish the district. She changed her mind when she saw a meeting room packed with Spring Hill firefighters and their supporters.
I don't think she did even them a favor in the long run. They do good work fighting fires and handling medical emergencies, and their reputation suffers because of their barely competent board.
How about the fire commission itself? Did it benefit? Well, that 2007 vote prompted it to seek full independence, which was granted by a referendum in 2008. And this led to the current predicament. Because of the vote not to give the district authority to levy taxes, it still relies on the county to do this for it on the strength of a temporary court order. And though nobody knows for sure what will happen if the next referendum fails and the court order expires at the end of September, it seems likely that through some emergency declaration on the state level, we'll get back to where we could have been four years ago, with the county in charge.
The Spring Hill fire board makes some strong arguments that its property tax rate is cheaper for most residents than the county's charges, but I'm not convinced it will be able to maintain services without additional fees of some description. Plus, it just makes sense that providing services would be cheaper, that administrative costs could be cut, if we made this one fire service rather than two. So, I'm not sure residents have benefitted either.
That's not to mention the other good thing that comes with making firefighting a simple county agency. It removes a lot of the political maneuvering and brawling that can only be described as — what else? — pointless.