The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District is in need of emergency assistance — damage control for self-inflicted injuries. Twenty-one months after the Spring Hill electorate said it wanted an independent fire district, voters just rebuked the same district for its reprehensible job of self-governing.
Twelve days ago, voters rejected giving the district the legal authority to assess and collect taxes to operate its fire department.
That task, for the time being, still falls to Hernando County where county commissioners approved the district's proposed tax rate for the coming year with little public discussion. For practical purposes, nothing changes about the Spring Hill Fire District. Its fire commission still must set policies and balance its budget and firefighters will still answer calls.
Politically speaking, however, the district clearly has a damaged public image in need of repair. The volunteer commission's goofball antics are an embarrassment. Earlier this year, it reprimanded one of its own for sending what was described as an exorbitant number of e-mails to the chief. A year ago, it attempted to rush through an ill-advised tangible tax. Those issues, and plenty more, illustrate a majority of the district's fire commissioners do not comprehend their job duties or fiduciary responsibilities to the public.
The tangible tax proposal in particular sparked severe public distrust and a fear the district could not or would not live within its means — in this case a $15 million budget. It was ill-timed — coming during the first budget season following the vote for independence — poorly vetted and then withdrawn by Chief Michael Rampino even though the commission had approved the proposal. That, too, showed the public that the staff, not the commission, was really in charge.
This year's campaign tactics by the firefighters' union championing the referendum also were misguided. They included unfounded contentions that property taxes would go up if voters failed to vote yes. The electorate didn't believe the scare tactics and responded with a vote of no confidence.
Eventually, voters likely will be asked to reconsider this referendum. Otherwise, the chore of setting the tax rate falls to county commissioners who have indicated no desire to do so.
But before scheduling another vote, there needs to be a districtwide effort to rebuild the public trust among the 90,000 people protected by the fire department. The fire commission must govern professionally. The union must not spread misinformation. And the tax-paying voters must have confidence that the district officials — both elected and appointed — are good stewards of the public purse.