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Fire district merger may add airport

Plans to merge several fire districts in eastern Hernando County were expanded Wednesday when county commissioners decided to include the airport fire district _ a move Aviation Authority Chairman David Russell predicted would unleash "a bloodbath" at the airport.

"(Airport businesses) are not going to like it," Russell said, though he declined to comment further on the merger until it had been discussed by the full Aviation Authority. The merger could affect how much businesses at the airport pay for fire protection.

County commissioners must have at least two more public hearings before the merger is final.

Originally, commissioners planned to merge only the East Hernando and South Central fire districts and the Dogwood Estates special tax district, but they changed their minds after Commissioner Paul Sullivan questioned why the airport district was left out. That district shares staff members with the South Central district.

Staff members said the airport district was left out earlier because of several legal complexities, including the collection of fees for fire protection. Because businesses in the airport industrial park rent lots from the county, the county cannot put their fire protection fees on property tax bills as it does for other residents or businesses. Commissioners decided to go ahead and merge the district with the others and deal with the billing issue separately.

Danny Roberts, who is chief of all the districts involved in the merger, said the merger will save the county money through the sharing of staff members and equipment. The new district will also be able to buy items in bulk.

Most of the residents who addressed commissioners during Wednesday's workshop supported the merger.

"I think the fire districts are too important a resource to let them go their separate ways," Janey Baldwin said.

"I am in favor of the merger . . .but it should include the Airport Industrial Park. They haven't been paying their share in years," said John Tenini, a longtime critic of the airport arrangement.

Businesses in the park pay 7 cents per square foot for fire protection. Businesses in all of Roberts' districts pay nearly 10.5 cents per square foot, and most businesses in the Northwest Hernando fire district pay nearly 11 cents per square foot.

County commissioners have authorized a study that will compare county fire rates with others around the United States to see if Hernando County is over- or undercharging. That study will now include the rates charged at the airport.

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