Size of government is at issue for Spring Hill

One of the questions confronting Spring Hill voters in November will be the idea of shrinking government. It's a natural follow-up to the decision in January when voters approved Amendment 1 to the Florida Constitution, and granted themselves a higher homestead exemption.

The question this time, however, isn't framed as a gubernatorial promise of property taxes dropping like a rock, or a surefire way to stimulate home sales, or even Tallahassee's intrusion into a local issue to rein in what state legislators liked to characterize as reckless government spending.

The issue in November is independence. The declaration from the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District is that it should be free from Hernando County oversight and have the ability to extend its self-governing over the emergency services for 66,000 people on the west side of the county.

Contrarily, it is fair to suggest that independence is actually duplication of services since it would, among other things, continue separate emergency dispatching.

The ballot question will ask voters to choose whether they want absolute independence (which will require action in Tallahassee and another vote next year) or abolish the five-member fire commission that oversees the district now, but answers to county commissioners.

We'll be offering a more definitive judgment on the issue in the coming weeks, but a few things jump out.

Efficiency is the buzzword around Hernando County, where Government Gone Wild has been replaced by Government Gone Wise. Thursday, commissioners approved a new budget that cuts spending and embarks on the first year of a two-year plan to reorganize county operations.

Two days earlier, county commissioners agreed to close a county station and move fire operations into a nearby city of Brooksville station. County impact fees will pay the cost of an addition to the city station, which is better and cheaper than rebuilding the county-owned building.

Likewise, the city of Brooksville decided to merge its emergency dispatching service with the county's, and County Administrator David Hamilton and Sheriff Richard Nugent are negotiating a deal to have the Sheriff's Office oversee the county's emergency management operations.

Anyone see a trend here?

Cooperation. Consolidation. Cost savings. All in the name of more efficiently protecting the public's safety.

It seems like an appropriate time then to ask Spring Hill voters if they want to do likewise.

Let the interloper in me point out that one of the smartest decisions made by the city of Dade City was to eliminate its fire department in 2003 and contract for fire service with Pasco County. It was an emotional issue that drew pickets, hundreds of petition signatures and a split council vote of 3-2. After hours of debate, the mayor ended up passing the gavel during the meeting so he could make the motion to consolidate the services.

Armageddon never arrived as predicted. Service was uninterrupted. Firefighters reported to the same station every day; they just became county employees instead of city workers. The only person not retained was the city chief. The switch saved the city $856,000 a year. After the dust settled, even the opponents acknowledged it was a wise decision that helped ensure the city's long-term financial stability.

In light of the scuttled town hall meeting this week that was supposed to provide a public forum for voter information, we trust Spring Hill residents still will be able educate themselves on the pros and cons of who should administer fire service in Spring Hill. Don't be misled by emotional, Save Our Service arguments. Fire protection isn't going anywhere. Stations won't be shuttered. Trucks won't be decommissioned. Firefighters won't be looking for work.

Certainly, vested interests abound. The firefighters union contributed $14,000 to the political action committee advocating independence. That is no surprise since unions try to protect jobs.

Except nobody has suggested a reduction in workforce if the referendum for independence is defeated. If voters opt for county control, the only people who could be out of work on Nov. 5 are the five unpaid fire commissioners.

C.T. Bowen can be reached at bowen@sptimes.com or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6239.

Size of government is at issue for Spring Hill 09/27/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 3, 2008 6:51pm]

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