Financing the local fire department shouldn't be construed as a poke in the eye to democracy. But that is the inaccurate portrayal offered up by critics of the Spring Hill Independent Fire District, which is seeking Hernando County's permission to continue levying a property tax rate of 2.5 mills ($2.50 per $1,000 of a property's assessed taxable value).
The district needs the county's blessing because of a fickle Spring Hill electorate. The public voted in 2008 for a fire district removed from county oversight, then returned to the polls in 2010 and denied the newly independent district the ability to set its maximum tax rate.
There is no denying that past actions by the elected Fire Commission didn't instill voter confidence in its ability to carry out the fiduciary responsibilities of overseeing a department. But the alternative is a public safety agency unable to pay its bills, meaning a potential shutdown of fire and ambulance services to Spring Hill's 90,000 residents on Oct. 1.
There are legal obstacles to navigate, including an inter-local agreement and a past judicial ruling, but neither should be considered a permanent impediment to keeping the fire department functioning. The fire commission — as voters' elected representatives — approved a resolution asking for the county to continue collecting the tax payments until another ballot referendum can be scheduled. It is a reasonable request and the County Commission should grant it.
Voters unhappy with the fire district's operations or with the fire commission's performance in setting the policies should express that displeasure when voting for fire commissioners. Expecting the department to operate absent property tax revenue is absurd. And, attempting to govern by referendum is a poor way to ensure firefighters are available to answer emergency calls.