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Fire district drops its plan to hire lawyer

The board decides to save the $25,000 to $35,000 cost of an attorney and let the district chiefs handle the contract negotiations.

Spring Hill Fire Rescue District commissioners have scrapped a plan to spend $25,000 to $35,000 for a lawyer to negotiate a contract with the firefighters union, deciding instead to let district chiefs handle the talks.

Commission Chairman Bob Kanner said Thursday the board decided the price was too high, especially because the district was just forced to spend $50,500 in contingency money on a brush truck that commissioners and administrators mistakenly believed could be bought with impact fees.

"Because we had an unexpected expense of $50,500 that had to come out of contingency funds, to take another $35,000, or even $25,000, out of that fund would put it pretty low in dollar value," he said. Kanner added that the decision was made privately in a closed session Wednesday night after the board's regular public meeting.

On Thursday, union president John Ferriero applauded the board's reversal, after bitterly criticizing the move to use a lawyer for upcoming negotiations as a waste of tax money.

"I'm glad they did it and look forward to an amicable process," he said.

The decision came one day after Kanner appeared before the County Commission seeking permission to use contingency money to cover the cost of the brush truck.

At the public fire commission meeting Wednesday night, Kanner asked fellow board members to review district purchasing procedures with Chief Mike Morgan. He said commissioners will also review those procedures at their next meeting.

Later, Commissioner Dennis Andrews questioned the status of the district's budget. Pointing to a monthly expenditure report, he said he was concerned that 12 budget line items, including overtime, were already 80 percent spent, even though the fiscal year is only half over.

"We're looking at having to move quite a bit of money here soon," Andrews told the board, adding later: "We should not have to move that kind of money. The purpose of the budget is to budget the proper amounts."

Assistant Chief J.J. Morrison stressed that the district is fiscally sound, saying budget transfers are necessary throughout the year to address unexpected costs.

"It's impossible to predict how many paper clips you use over the course of a year," he said.

Other areas of the budget, such as salaries, are running well below projections, Morrison added. "There's an ebb and flow to that."

The exchange grew heated at one point after Morrison objected to Andrews' suggestion that the district was in financial trouble.

"Let's try this," Andrews shot back. "Let's not move any money into overtime and see how long employees keep a smile on their face."

At Andrews' suggestion, the board asked to receive monthly spending updates. Andrews said seeing the figures will help commissioners plan properly as they begin to prepare for next year.

In other business:

Commissioners voted unanimously to allow their lawyer, Robert Battista, to answer questions from the media. Battista said an earlier board order had kept him from doing so in the past. Battista, who started work Wednesday as Citrus County attorney, will no longer serve as attorney for the fire district, effective next month.

Commissioners voted unanimously to spend $17,000 on extrication equipment. The board told Morrison to find out from the county whether impact fees might be used. If not, the board authorized using contingency money.

Commissioners voted unanimously to contract with a temporary agency to hire a board secretary at $8.94 an hour. The board approved the position for at least 10 to 15 hours a month.