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Polite talk, few details emerge from Land O'Lakes fire meeting

A spirit of cautious cooperation prevailed at Thursday night's forum on fire and rescue service in Land O'Lakes, with officials from both county and volunteer agencies expressing interest in working together.

The area is served by a 30-member volunteer department whose professionalism and financial integrity have been questioned.

The crowd of 75 that attended the meeting at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex also heard arguments for and against joining the county's fire taxation district.

Pasco County Fire-Rescue's administrators told the residents that its paid firefighters are better trained and ready to respond to alarms 24 hours a day. Matthew Ballaban, the county's emergency services director, noted that at least once a week, one of Pasco's five volunteer departments fails to respond to a call for help.

The volunteers said joining the county district would be expensive, without offering much in the way of improved services. The volunteer department asks residents for a $30 annual donation, while an owner of a $100,000 home in the county district pays $93 in taxes.

"Everyone knows that when you deal with county government, it starts low and goes high," said Land O'Lakes fire board member Billy Mitchell.

County Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who organized the forum, said commissioners were unlikely to force property owners in Land O'Lakes to join the district. And residents, she said, do not seem eager to vote for such a change.

"I have not heard a great deal of voices crying out" for a referendum, she said.

Volunteers and county officials expressed support for a joint effort to improve fire services, although they offered few details on how that would be done.

"We're not here to discredit the Land O'Lakes Fire Department in any way," Ballaban said. "What we are saying is that we can enhance what they do."

Mulieri said chiefs of the two departments had met earlier and talked about ways to share training and technology.

Also discussed was the possibility of bringing the two departments together in a combined operation, similar to those used in Port Richey and Zephyrhills. Those municipal fire stations use a mix of paid and volunteer firefighters to answer calls.

Mitchell and Land O'Lakes Chief Tommy Mock faced questions from the audience about whether the department could keep track of its finances, and whether the public would be allowed access to financial records and board of directors meetings.

Questions about finances came in the wake of former fire Chief Wayne Kerr's resignation. He left his position during a criminal investigation of his handling of department money.

Mitchell said the department's financial integrity is sound.

"As far as misapplication of funds, that has not been proved," he said.

The issue of public records arose after board members denied the Times access to the department's financial papers. The Times sued and lost, but the department later agreed to open the records anyway.