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Merging Spring Hill, county's fire services makes financial sense

An independent Spring Hill Fire Rescue district was doomed not by its elected commission's bickering or legitimate fiscal concerns, but by an electorate that just didn't care. Even with ballots mailed directly to their homes, more than 50,000 people, or 73 percent of the eligible residents, didn't bother to vote.

That alone should signal that it is an appropriate time to save the financial and human resources that have been spent trying to govern the district absent county oversight. Just to hammer home the point, 53 percent of those who did vote in the special election that concluded Wednesday said they did not want to give the district the authority to levy taxes.

Fire district advocates didn't help their cause with misinformation, finger-pointing and even bullying from a fire commissioner who sicked a lawyer on a citizen activist and who argued incorrectly that she is not a public figure even though she holds elected public office. Whether it was ignorance or intentional ambiguity that prompted Commissioner Sherry Adler's attempt to silence a critic's First Amendment rights, neither reflects favorably on her judgment.

Regardless of that distraction, the election outcome leaves an independent district with no ability to finance its operations and a reserve account that will be exhausted just a few months into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. It also means the district committed an estimated $135,000 to poll just 19,000 people.

The electoral ambivalence now presents the district and Hernando County with yet another opportunity for consolidation, the details of which must be fair to Spring Hill residents who have been paying for a separate fire service for 37 years. In the long run, however, economies of scale should lead to reduced overhead expenses without a reduction in services.

It also is an opportune time to revamp the county's public safety financing system. Spring Hill charges a property tax of 2.5 mills for fire protection and ambulance service. Hernando County charges a flat fee for fire protection, plus a small property tax for emergency medical services.

In this instance, the Spring Hill Fire Rescue district has it right. County commissioners should junk their $194 residential fire fee and adopt a straight ad valorem rate, as Spring Hill uses, to finance fire services. It is a much more equitable way to pay for fire protection.

To their credit, Spring Hill Fire commissioners rejected a fee plan last year.

The county's per-home fee is a misguided financing plan that requires every residence, regardless of its value, to pay the same for fire protection. It's unfair and means people of modest means are financing a sizable tax break for the owners of the county's most expensive residential properties.

Residential fire fees in the county date back decades and we suspect are a remnant of volunteer fire departments that asked everyone to pitch in a membership fee. Merging the departments is a wise time to modernize the finances as well and ensure an equitable system county wide.

Merging Spring Hill, county's fire services makes financial sense 06/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 5:32pm]
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