The misgivings surrounding a proposed merger of the Spring Hill Fire District with Hernando County are understandable because the unknowns are many. It is unfortunate. On Nov. 4, Spring Hill voters will consider a referendum for independence without knowing the fallout if it is rejected. Among the unanswered questions:
Will the county compensate Spring Hill residents for the fire stations and equipment? Will deployment levels and response times remain the same? Will a newly merged department be financed with fees, property taxes or both?
The referendum is posed as a vote for independence. Voting "yes" means the district will become fully independent of the county and, pending legislative approval, be run by a board of elected fire commissioners who will have significantly more statutory authority, including the ability to condemn property. We advise against it.
Many members of current and past boards have acted as little more than rubber stamps for staff recommendations, including a recent contract extension for firefighters that the board chairman attempted to approve without taking comment from the public. Two years ago, the board unwisely turned down an offer to consolidate emergency dispatch services with the Hernando Sheriff's Office despite a promised cost savings. It demonstrated an inability to see the big picture and showed a fire district governed by personal acquaintances rather than the public good.
Vetting of issues frequently degenerates into an ugly and unprofessional discourse. The prospect of self-governing, without the safety net of county oversight, is unsettling.
Spring Hill residents will be better served in the long run by rejecting independence and merging with Hernando County. Economies of scale should lead to reduced overhead expenses without a reduction in services. Toward that end, however, county commissioners cannot remain silent. They must expedite a fair consolidation plan that addresses public concerns.
Commissioners should be willing to consider obtaining appraisals of the Fire District's buildings and equipment and rebating the value back to the district residents via reduced property tax payments that could be spread out over multiple years. Residents shouldn't feel like they are simply giving away a public safety infrastructure they have accumulated over more than 30 years.
Commissioners also should junk their own $194 residential fire fee and adopt a straight ad valorem, as Spring Hill uses, to finance fire services. Much of the reluctance in Spring Hill is attributed to cost. Seventy-four percent of the homes in the district will see their current fire tax bill increase if they are asked to pay the county's per-home residential fee, plus the small millage for ambulance service.
To their credit, Spring Hill voters rejected a fee plan in the early 1990s. The county's per-home fee is a misguided financing plan that requires every residence, regardless of its value, to pay the same for fire protection. It's unfair and means people of modest means are financing a sizable tax break for the owners of the county's most expensive residential properties.
Residential fire fees in the county date back decades and we suspect are a remnant of volunteer fire departments that asked everyone to pitch in a membership fee. Merging the departments is an opportune time to modernize finances as well, particularly as projected long-term cost savings are taken into account.
Also on the ballot will be the selection of three Spring Hill Fire District commissioners. The terms in office will be short-lived if the referendum for independence is defeated. Still, we strongly believe current Commissioner Robert J. Giammarco should be retained because of his courage to publicly scrutinize the department's finances.
Of the remainder of the field, Amy E. Brosnan demonstrates a good understanding of the district's nuts and bolts, though her unabashed cheerleading is disconcerting. Her loyalty should allow her to represent the district's interests in negotiations with the county if the referendum is defeated and a consolidation plan is forthcoming. Ditto for retired New York City firefighter John Pasquale, but he obviously accepts staff data at face value without independent research.