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Fire service on the table at Thursday meeting

(ran PAS edition)

Commissioner Pat Mulieri's long-awaited town meeting to discuss fire service finally has been scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex on Collier Parkway.

Betty Buckman, president of the Lake Padgett Estates Civic Association, said she plans to attend.

"I'm excited about this meeting," Buckman said. "I'm anxious to see what they put together."

At the meeting, residents will hear from and question members of the Volunteer Fire Department that currently serves Land O'Lakes, and the county department that wants to.

"Whatever the public is concerned about, I'll answer the best I can," said Tom Mock, interim chief of the volunteer department.

Mock says people should stick with volunteers, because their service costs far less than county service would, and volunteers are able to respond more quickly to emergencies in the area.

Matt Ballaban, chief of the county's emergency services department, will attend and talk up county service.

"I would think I would have to point out the quality and value of the service," said Ballaban. He has pointed to the county's resources and superior training to encourage residents to switch to county service.

Taxes would increase for Land O'Lakes residents if they made the switch, but Ballaban has long maintained a "You get what you pay for" response. He refers to county emergency units as emergency rooms on wheels, noting that volunteers lack sophisticated medical equipment.

Talk of a town meeting began shortly after a house in Lake Padgett burned in May.

Since then, the Volunteer Fire Department came under further scrutiny as its chief resigned amid allegations of financial wrongdoing and members of the board of directors refused to let reporters look at the department's books.

The department prevailed after the Times sued for access to the records, but the board has since voted to allow reporters a look at them.

That hasn't happened, though, because treasurer Walter Hardy refused to comply with the board's vote. He said at the last board meeting that he would resign rather than let the media look at the department's records.

Billy Mitchell, the board member who first suggested letting the media look at records, said the board would have to select a new treasurer at its November meeting.