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Spring Hill fire issue smolders

After three hours of bickering and bantering, screaming and shouting at a meeting concerning the independence of the Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District, county commissioners and Fire and Rescue District commissioners agreed on one thing: They need to have another meeting.

So some time in July, the two governing bodies plan to sit down and decide once and for all the controversial issue of independence for the Fire and Rescue District.

For Fire and Rescue District commissioners, employees and many Spring Hill residents who desperately want independence from the county, the meeting Tuesday night was not time wasted. They apparently made some headway.

County commissioners now seem to be leaning toward granting the district independence, at least temporarily, but probably will leave the decision up to voters in the 1992 election.

"I have no problem with granting them (temporary) independence now _ maybe it will show the people of Spring Hill what it will be like," County Commissioner June Ester said.

But Ester, along with other commissioners, said she wanted the idea of complete independence for the district to be put on the 1992 ballot.

Ester was one of three county commissioners who voted against granting the district its independence a month ago and could become the swing vote in July when the five-member County Commission reconsiders the issue.

Like other commissioners who dissented last month, Ester said she disagreed with complete independence for the district because of the wording of the 1974 ordinance that created it. The ordinance, as approved by voters in a referendum, states that the County Commission is to have ultimate control over its district's budget and hiring and firing of Fire and Rescue District commissioners.

But like other county commissioners, Ester said Tuesday she would consider changing the 1974 ordinance temporarily, at least until the issue is put to vote in 1992.

What helped convince her and other commissioners was a crowd of about 600 Spring Hill residents who turned out at the Fire and Rescue District-sponsored meeting, most to express their wishes for independence.

"It only took us 100 (hours) to make Kuwait independent, but how long is it going to take us to make the Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District independent?" asked resident Julius Selitsky.

The issue of independence for the district came to a head after the county late last year began efforts to come into compliance with a 1989 state law defining dependent and independent taxing districts for tax collection purposes.

Under the law, the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) has categorized the Fire and Rescue District as a district dependent on the county for financing.

That meant that the county either had to significantly reduce its ability to raise its tax millage rates in the future and keep the district dependent or make it totally independent, outside the stipulations of the 1974 ordinance that created the district.

The County Commission in December voted to make the district a so-called Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) in an effort to keep its tax-levying abilities, but under the MSTU, much of the management of the district would revert from the Fire and Rescue Commission to the county.

That possibility raised the ire of Fire and Rescue District commissioners and prompted them to hold the meeting Tuesday.

"What has been done so far by the County Commission was done with very little input from you, the people of Spring Hill," Fire and Rescue Commission Chairman Eugene Wright told the crowd at the meeting. "And this is truly a Spring Hill issue."