Last week, Hernando County Commissioner David Russell called the upcoming referendum on the Spring Hill Fire Rescue district's taxing authority the last chance for the department to survive independently. He suggested that fire commissioners explain their positions to voters and do it correctly.
It took less than 72 hours for the fire board to ignore the advice. After agreeing to pay $135,000 for a special election to be conducted by mail, the fire commission, on a 3-2 vote, authorized a public information campaign that could cost as much as $19,000 more. Worse, the initial version of the campaign flier contained misleading information.
It portrayed a county tax rate able to increase to 10 mills exclusively for fire protection if residents reject giving the district permission to continue charging a maximum of 2.5 mills. It's an unstated scare tactic. Under the Florida Constitution, the Hernando County Commission can levy a property tax rate of 10 mills to pay for all services it provides, including law enforcement, parks and libraries. It cannot suddenly create a new 10-mill levy just for firefighting and ambulance services.
Likewise, a comparison box stated that Hernando County does not recognize tax exemptions for churches and those granted to seniors and veterans. It is true that all property owners in the county pay a flat fee of nearly $195 for fire service, but the property tax of just less than 0.56 mills for ambulance service is a traditional ad valorem tax that adheres to all exemptions. Churches are not charged it, and veteran and senior exemptions are applied.
The district needs to be accurate and unbiased in the information it provides. A public agency cannot advocate a pro or con position on a pending ballot question under a 2009 state law. The Spring Hill fire district, in particular, must be cautious. Voters failed to give the fire commission the ability to levy property taxes in August 2010, an outcome viewed widely as a repudiation of past fire commissioners' unprofessional behavior and inability to show fiscal prudence.
The question now goes back to voters in the expensive special election because an agreement for Hernando County to act as the taxing authority expires Sept. 30, and a judge declined to extend it until a regularly scheduled election date in 2012.
A fire district that wants to maintain its independence can demonstrate its ability to self govern by providing accurate, impartial information to the more than 70,000 voters in Spring Hill. Implying a potential for huge property tax increases is nothing more than an irresponsible stunt to alarm the electorate. Subterfuge needs to be removed from this public safety debate.