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County to divide into fire districts

A year and a day after the County Commission appointed him to the county's Fire Services Task Force, Jim Tomlinson came to a conclusion about the worth of his work. "The task force is a cop-out for the commissioners so they don't have to make a decision," he said.

The commission met Thursday to consider the task force's proposal, which called for a professional fire department to serve the entire county, except for areas now served by the Brooksville Fire Department and Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District.

The four commissioners present voted unanimously to have the county's staff divide the county into fire districts. The districts later can decide by referendum whether they will form professional fire departments.

County Commissioner June Ester added that the fire districts likely will follow the lines of existing volunteer districts.

Asked if anything had changed because of the task force's exhaustive study during the past year, Ester said, "It really hasn't," she said.

"I have no idea" why the task force was formed, she said. "It seems like every two or three years there's another task force. I have no objection if people want to volunteer their time."

She said a group of business people from Ridge Manor asked for the study. The commission agreed to form the task force, she said, "but I told them up front that I did not favor countywide fire service."

The task force, which has been studying countywide fire protection since last spring, presented the commission with a report more than 40 pages long in December. The report claimed that the current volunteer service is inadequate in many areas of the county.

The task force's recommendation, which would have taken five years to implement, called for building fire stations in several areas that are not now covered by professional or volunteer fire departments or not covered adequately.

The stations would have been staffed by full-time professional firefighters. The plan also called for part-time and volunteer firefighters to be called in to support the professionals. The task force report proposed that these services be paid for by an assessment of $50 per year per house and 10 cents per square foot for commercial property.

Those fees are more than most of the county is ready to pay, Ester said. "We have not had people clamoring for fire protection."

County Commissioner Richard Killingsworth agreed. "There are many things we think are imperative, but we have to look at where the revenues are coming from," he said. "We're going through kind of a rough period in trying to figure out what we can afford."

By letting districts decide, he said, the areas of the county that need improved fire service _ such as the Hernando County Airport, the nearby industrial park and the area near Interstate 75 and State Road 50 _ can get it.

Killingsworth made the motion that later was approved by the commission. Specifically, it stipulates that each fire district will report to the County Commission, and that if a district votes to form a fire department, it will be taxed by assessment.

Paul Elgland, task force chairman, said dividing the county into districts defeated the purpose of the countywide plan.

"The problem with the district approach is that the stations will be established for the convenience of the districts rather than for the county as a whole," he said.

Fire stations may end up being placed too close to one another, and the county will not be able to share the cost of expensive items such as ladder trucks, he said.