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Fire district will engulf county

Some of the public has battled the plan, but a Hernando County official says he won't go back and forth.

At one minute past midnight on Oct. 1, Hernando County will have a consolidated fire district.

If all goes according to plan, residents at first will not detect much change, County Administrator Paul McIntosh said. Any perceptible difference should come over time as service improves, he said.

But consolidating the Northwest, Northeast, East Hernando and Airport fire districts with emergency medical services has been anything but unnoticeable since the process began in April. The county has endured public battles about who would lead the district and who would work there, not to mention who would pay for it.

The debate continues at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday with a public hearing to impose fire and rescue special assessments on property owners who fall within the new district, which includes all but Spring Hill, Hernando Beach, Brooksville and Township 22.

Despite the bumps along the way, McIntosh said he considered the consolidation to be progressing positively.

"Any time that you change existing patterns and consolidate things and change coverage in something as important as fire services, you're going to have some controversy around that," he said. "I don't think that's anything strange."

The proposal, versions of which had been considered and dismissed for years, has met with resistance on some fronts since its inception. A hotbed of opposition arose in the Nobleton/Istachatta area, where many residents complained that the new district would not have a station close enough to their homes.

They have argued in favor of keeping the Tri-County Volunteer Fire District permanently. The volunteer service, which many people consider adequate for their needs, will remain intact even after the county gets itself established in the region in the spring.

Many people living in the northeast region plan to continue their fight Tuesday by asking the County Commission to consider not charging them the $83 fire fee that comes with consolidation, at least until the new department actually serves them. Residents now pay $30 for fire service.

The manager at the Istachatta Mobile Home Park said he had collected dozens of signatures opposing the fee. Other residents have sent letters to the county expressing their concerns.

Commissioners said they would listen to the residents, but they showed little inclination to stop or change the consolidation effort.

"I think it's going just about as we thought it should," Commissioner Chris Kingsley said. "When you do something new, people are always going to have concerns. I don't believe in government saying yes, then saying no, then saying yes again."

Chairman Paul Sullivan, who has been criticized for comments that he "protected" Hernando Beach from the consolidation, said the Tri-County service area had been split over the concept, with many people in the Lake Lindsey area asking for expanded fire service.

"We can make adjustments once the program is in place," Sullivan said. "But we have an obligation to provide emergency services to our taxpayers."

The commission also will consider the appointment of a medical director for emergency services and selection of a billing firm for advanced life services Tuesday.

These decisions come on the heels of accusations, since resolved, that the county was hiring unfairly for its new EMS positions.

Florida Regional Emergency Medical Services is pulling out of Hernando County at the end of this month. The county government has agreed to take over the program.

As the county hired its emergency staff, two Florida Regional employees spoke to the commission and sent letters complaining that they were not getting a fair shake in their bids for the jobs being transferred from the private company to the public sector.

Demetra Sirvent, a medic, contended that current Hernando County EMS personnel were turned down while people from outside the county were hired.

"It was my understanding that Hernando County would offer positions to those who already work and live here, and who have served the county for many years already," Sirvent said in a letter to the St. Petersburg Times. "I find it very interesting that the promises made were not kept and that Hernando County employees are now being put out of a job or taking cuts in pay in the very county they live and have worked in."

Paramedic Stephen Compton accused the county of overlooking him for a higher-ranking job than he had because of a "personal dislike by one of the chiefs or the EMS manager." He said in a letter to McIntosh that the county's hiring standards were unfair.

Such complaints prompted commissioners to demand a review of the hiring practices. Mike Nickerson, Fire and Rescue Services director, drafted a report detailing the procedures he and his staff used, in accordance with the commission's direction.

All Florida Regional employees based in Hernando were given equivalent positions with the county when possible, he wrote. Those requesting promotions were considered, he wrote, but got the jobs only if they proved they were the best qualified candidates.

"We did everything within our power to interview everybody," Nickerson said. "We feel very good that we picked the most qualified people."

Both Compton and Sirvent have taken similar jobs with the county, Human Resources Director Barbara Dupre said, and most problems in that area appear resolved.

The county firefighters union, meanwhile, still had some unanswered questions about such areas as how the EMS workers will be absorbed into the bargaining unit and how the pay scales will be set, Dupre noted. Meetings between the administration and union leadership were scheduled for this week and next week.

Because all of the employees will be trained as firefighters within three years, the county should have no problem allowing the new workers to join the union without drastically changing its organization, Dupre said.

"I don't think it's a problem," she said. "I just see it as something that needs to be addressed."

Union president Brent Blankenship agreed that while concerns existed, they could be handled simply. The problem, he said, is that the union had not been involved in ongoing conversations about the consolidation.

"We have not gotten the input or the dialogue that I would have liked," he said. "I don't know what all the plans are. All I have is hearsay."

Blankenship looked forward to the meetings with top county staff about such areas as equitable pay and did not expect trouble.

"We're all professionals and we know how to do our jobs," Blankenship said. "I don't anticipate it not going well."

Perhaps the biggest blowout came at the commission table in June, when McIntosh recommended Nickerson to head the department. Commissioner Pat Novy led an impassioned battle against Nickerson, who she said was less qualified or liked than East Hernando Chief Danny Roberts, who was named second-in-command.

McIntosh refused to back off his nomination and eventually got the commission's support. Since that time, he said, the consolidation has moved forward as planned.

The county has gotten its certificate of public convenience to provide emergency services. It has set its trauma transport protocol and applied to the state for its transportation license, among all its other goals on its time line.

"The kinks are being ironed out," he said. "A work plan was provided to the board, and we are proceeding to implement that work plan."