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Merging four fire districts a good plan

The Hernando County Commission acted sensibly and frugally last week when it decided to merge four fire districts in the east and central parts of the county. The move should save money by making better use of existing equipment, as well as streamlining training, and the purchasing and billing of customers.

The commission must convene two public hearings before making a final decision on merging the East Hernando, South Central, Dogwood Estates and airport fire districts. There may be some instinctive concern by taxpayers in those districts who want to make sure fire protection service will not suffer, and the public hearings are the appropriate time to raise those concerns. However, if any change occurs at all it should be for the better, and it does not appear the merger plan will draw much criticism on that front.

However, the commission's decision to include tenants in the airport industrial park in the consolidation is likely to be opposed.

Businesses in the park have long received a break on their fire protection rates, paying only 7 cents per square foot while businesses in the other districts are charged 10.5 cents per square foot. In the Northwest Fire District, which is not affected by the current merger proposal, business pay almost 11 cents per square foot.

The increased expense for businesses at the airport may seem onerous, but it is a reasonable attempt by the commission to make all the fire protection rates it governs more equitable. Those tenants who may be tempted to complain about the higher fees should remember that they have enjoyed reduced rates for many years, while businesses in other districts have paid full price.

This merger proposal comes as a precursor to a study the commission has sanctioned that will compare fire rates in Hernando County with others around the country. That information should be valuable in helping the commission set future rates, and depending on the results, it eventually could mean a reduction for all customers (except for Spring Hill and Rescue District and Brooksville residents who govern their own rates).

The information in the upcoming report also may be instructive to the commissioners, or their successors, when they finally engage in the inevitable debate about the merits of establishing a county-wide fire service.

But until the rate study is completed, the commission has done the right thing by proceeding with the merger plan and seeking to make the existing rates more equal.