The price of democracy in Spring Hill is getting steeper. A tentatively scheduled taxing referendum will cost each of the voters in the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District $2.25 to answer a question put to them just last summer. That is the per-person tab for a $150,000 special election, to be conducted via mail-in ballot, to find out if the district's 67,000 voters want to give the fire commission the legal authority to collect taxes to finance the department's firefighting and ambulance operations.
Voters won't be paying cash for their ballots. They already did. The expense is being absorbed from the district's reserve accounts.
Still, the unexpectedly high price — that must be paid amid dwindling revenues hammered by falling property values — comes because the Hernando County Commission declined to step in and assist the district until the referendum could be held on a regularly scheduled election date in 2012.
That this question is being put to voters twice within 10 months is the unfortunate result of a series of questionable decisions regarding the department's operations. In 2008, voters approved a nonbinding referendum for full independence from county oversight, then rejected a second referendum in August 2010 to give the district the actual legal authority to collect taxes. For the time being, the county still collects property taxes for the department under an interlocal agreement expiring Sept. 30. This week, a judge declined to extend the agreement temporarily even though that would have been the most logical arrangement.
Logical thinking, however, has been missing in much of this debacle. County commissioners could have extended the working relationship with the fire district but were warned off by their own legal counsel and Tom Hogan, the private attorney for the clerk of the circuit court and tax collector, who predicted nasty legal fights.
In that regard, the most level-headed thinking came from Commissioner Jeff Stabins. He suggested folding the fire district into the county's public safety operations. It makes sense, could result in cost savings, and mirrors the recommendation a consultant offered a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, the parochial interests in Spring Hill defeated that idea in the 2008 referendum for independence with a rhetoric-filled campaign that likely scared voters into maintaining a separately owned department.
Voters now will get one last crack at determining whether they trust their elected, but volunteer, fire commission to govern appropriately and to collect and spend property taxes wisely. A referendum defeat renders all prior ballot questions irrelevant because the district will cease to exist without a way to finance its operations.