All that is wrong with the oversight of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District came on full public display Tuesday morning in a Hernando County Commission workshop. There, former Fire Commission Chairman Leo Jacobs presented himself as the first public speaker and managed to offer revisionist history and to duck accountability for the quagmire surrounding the district's finances.
He blamed county commissioners for a 2008 ballot referendum that granted independence for the fire district, but failed to give it taxing authority. Three times he said it was "your mistake'' and urged county commissioners to take responsibility for their supposed error and to finance the cost of an ongoing special election by mail that ends Wednesday.
He is mistaken. Jacobs' statements are an insult to county commissioners and illustrate the inattention to detail (or worse, purposeful deception) that has surrounded the fire district's attempts to self-govern.
Here is a quick refresher for Jacobs and others of like mind:
April 2008: The fire board, which included Jacobs as a member, said it needed clarity on creating an independent district and instructed its chief and its attorney to ask the County Commission for help. Specifically, the fire board wondered about the timing of the independence if voters approved the referendum in the fall but still had to wait for a state law, affirming the vote, to take effect in 2009.
May 2008: Instead of seeking clarity and with no prior public debate among fire board members, the fire district's attorney asked the County Commission to postpone the referendum until after the 2009 legislative session. In effect, the attorney wanted state lawmakers to declare independence in Tallahassee before the public vote in Spring Hill. The County Commission wisely declined an end run around the electorate.
May 2008: Two weeks later the fire district's attorney and the county legal staff agreed to the ballot language to be presented to voters.
June 2008: The County Commission, following a public hearing on the issue, approved the ballot language for the November referendum that voters eventually approved. It gave the district independence, but made no mention of taxing authority.
Later, legislation from Tallahassee affirmed the district's independence from the county and capped the tax rate at 2.5 mills.
It isn't logical for Jacobs or others to blame county commissioners. The fire district's attorney blessed the ballot language and the public had its say in the public hearing. Instead, Jacobs should wonder why legal counsel wanted to circumvent the will of the people in 2008 and he could again answer that question in 2011. The fire district's harshest critics see the ongoing referendum as a needless do-over, since voters rejected giving the district taxing authority in an August 2010 election.
Tuesday, Jacobs also attempted to blame county commissioners for the fire district having to dip into reserve accounts to balance its budget. Again, he is wrong. The fire district is now being financed via 2.5 mills of real estate tax on parcels in the district. County government, however, is acting as a conduit only until Sept. 30, when an inter-local agreement granting it the taxing authority expires — hence the need for the special election to transfer that taxing ability to the district itself.
Jacobs' financial misstatement is the most legitimate reason for fiscally conscious voters to oppose the referendum. Even though the district has a tax rate of 2.5 mills, it cannot make its ends meet without spending reserves because of declining property values. That will not change no matter who collects the tax. Consolidation of services with Hernando County government is the most logical step for a cost-effective public safety service.