A year from now Spring Hill voters will head to the polls to consider giving taxing authority to its newly independent fire district, but the previews over the past three weeks indicate this amateurish operation is not ready to be given that responsibility. Consider:
• A majority of the elected fire commissioners rammed through a tangible tax proposal to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from businesses without consideration of reasonable alternatives like raising the real estate tax rate charged to all property owners or cutting the department's $15 million budget.
• Fire Chief Mike Rampino defied the fire commission's authority and failed to deliver the tax request to the Hernando County Commission which retains oversight until next year's election. Regardless of Rampino's stated motives that he disagreed with the tangible tax plan, he can not usurp the will of his elected bosses.
• That the fire commissioners neither disagreed with Rampino's insubordination nor held him accountable publicly shows exactly who is in charge of the Spring Hill Fire District and it's not the people elected by voters.
Rampino's duties are to manage the department providing fire and ambulance service to the 95,000 residents within the district. Saving his bosses from political embarrassment is not part of his job description and he and Fire Commission Chairman Leo Jacobs should have presented the tangible tax proposal to county commissioners and taken their lumps.
Jacobs, in particular, could have explained to the business community his comment that the district's "generosity has come to an end.''
Certainly, the tax plan would have died there. County Commission Chairman David Russell spoke publicly against the idea and none of the rest of the commission has shown a desire to increase taxes this year. Since Rampino did not appear before commissioners, they are scheduled to consider a resolution later this month stripping the fire district's authority to levy the tangible tax.
In other words, the grown-ups remain in charge at least for one more year. Good thing.
A tangible tax — an additional levy on companies' light fixtures, cash registers, office furniture and all other business-related equipment — is a legitimate revenue generator for local governments under most circumstances. But in Spring Hill, fire commissioners approved the plan on a 4-1 vote in late July under the pretense that businesses should share a greater burden of financing the department's operations. Later, Jacobs said he didn't realize a tangible tax already is levied by Hernando County government. Hardly the kind of statement that builds confidence in an independent fire district's ability to self govern.
A new tax on businesses in a down economy warrants a thorough vetting and should not be subjected to expedient consideration from a group of notorious rubber stampers acting on behalf of the fire department. Rob Giammarco was the only member of the fire commission to grasp the consequences of this ill-conceived plan. He voted against the tax and then advocated successfully for the fire commission to rescind it earlier this week.
And only Giammarco publicly acknowledged the long-range consequences of this embarrassing episode.
"This kind of thing says to taxpayers that we don't know what we're doing,'' Giammarco told Times staff writer Logan Neill. "Believe me, people are not going to forget about this.''
Indeed they shouldn't. Particularly during next year's referendum.