The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District is joining the wave of consolidation. It is a little late, but the decision last month to merge emergency dispatch services with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office indicates a fire commission majority willing to forsake tradition in order to better serve the community.
No immediate cost savings are anticipated because the displaced dispatchers will be offered other jobs with the fire district, either staffing an ambulance or assuming administrative duties. Still, the measure is important because it demonstrates a forward-thinking attitude toward the district's new independent responsibilities.
It also is a smart move politically because the district's finances already are under scrutiny. A promised bill by state Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, establishing the district's independence from county oversight, will include a maximum tax rate lower than what district advocates wanted. HB 1147 lists the tax rate at 2.75 mills, but a Schenck aide said last week that the number is an error and the bill will be amended to reflect the stated intent of establishing a maximum property tax rate of 2.5 mills. After some initial squabbling, the fire commission backed the less-than-expected tax rate in January. The district tax rate currently is 2.26 mills.
Merging the dispatch services is a sensible alternative at a time of tight local budgets from a down economy and increased property tax exemptions from voter-approved Amendment 1. Hernando Sheriff Richard Nugent already has assumed emergency management responsibilities from the county and combined dispatching services with the city of Brooksville.
A different Spring Hill Fire District Commission, offered an estimated $400,000 savings by merging dispatch services, rejected Nugent's proposal three years ago and county commissioners did not force the issue. That was a mistake.
Last month, Fire Commissioners Robert Giammarco, Amy Brosnan and Leo Jacobs reversed the parochial thinking and directed Spring Hill fire Chief Mike Rampino to turn dispatching over to the Sheriff's Office. It was the correct call, paving the way for future cost and time savings, and improving efficiency by eliminating the need for 911 calls to be transferred from the county to Spring Hill's dispatch center.
However, a distressing point in the public debate was the rationalization offered by Fire Commissioner Gene Panozzo for his no vote.
"We've always done dispatch. I voted the way I last voted, the way the dispatchers wanted us to vote,'' Panozzo told Times staff writer Barbara Behrendt.
He should re-examine his priorities. Panozzo represents 95,000 Spring Hill residents, not just nine full- and part-time dispatchers, and is charged with oversight of a nearly $15 million fire and ambulance service budget. He should not be taking marching orders from the hired help.