Hernando commissioners want the public to pay for an election instead of a court fight. That is the emerging scenario after commissioners did not act Tuesday on a request from the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District to continue collecting property taxes on the district's behalf to finance the fire and ambulance service for 92,000 residents.
The district needs assistance from the county because of conflicting results from voters on separate ballot issues. In 2008, voters approved an independent fire district in a non-binding referendum and the Legislature followed suit with a state law freeing the fire department from county government oversight. However, voters in 2010 rejected the district's ability to collect property taxes to finance its operations. So the county has been handling that chore under a 2009 court order that expires Sept. 30.
The district asked the county to continue that duty until it could put a tax question before voters again in 2012. It was a reasonable request undermined by the County Commission's legal staff and the private attorney retained by the clerk of the court and the tax collector. Both said litigation would follow to clarify if the county and constitutional officers had the authority to essentially sidestep the results of the 2010 referendum.
But instead of promising to seek expedited judicial clarity, the attorneys forecast the potential for lengthy litigation; financial liability foisted on taxpayers countywide and possible lost sales tax revenue to the county if a court issued an unfavorable ruling.
A commission that had started out wanting to ensure uninterrupted fire service to Spring Hill, instead indicated they will punt the issue right back to voters via a special election to be conducted exclusively by mail-in ballots. A final expense had not been determined, but first-class postage alone will be nearly $30,000 to mail ballots to the 67,000 registered voters in the fire district's 22 precincts. Printing and tabulation costs will push the price significantly higher.
It is a dubious do-over coming less than a year after those same voters said "no'' to giving the district authority to collect a maximum tax rate of 2.5 mills — the current tax rate in the district projected to produce nearly $8 million this budget year. But a second vote became a political necessity because county commissioners showed no stomach to buck the 2010 referendum result nor to be perceived as endorsing the often-embarrassing governance of the district.
The volunteer fire commissioners are key here. Past bickering, unprofessional conduct, money grabs and frequent capitulation to firefighters' interests over public concerns helped create the political environment that doomed the 2010 referendum. The cost of the public's lack of faith in the fire commission's ability to self govern is now $30,000 and rising.
Voters have said they want an independent fire department, but not so independent that it can be a taxing authority. Asking 67,000 fickle voters, instead of three lawyers and a judge, for a straight answer on the fire department's financing could be a futile exercise. Another "no'' vote would mean independent is synonymous with insolvent.