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Dade City sees fire service as election issue

(ran PS, PC editions)

City commissioners are looking for leverage, and they think a Pasco County Commission election might be the fulcrum.

Frustrated by the county's apparent determination to erase fire taxing districts that provide a big part of Dade City's and Zephyrhills' fire department budgets, Dade City Commissioner Hutch Brock on Tuesday said the looming County Commission election might be the place to make fire service an issue.

Putting pressure on commissioners in an election year, he said, could preserve the four fire districts that ring the two cities. In those districts, 110 square miles of unincorporated land, county residents pay nearly $900,000 in fire taxes that are funneled back to the cities in exchange for coverage.

That's money cities depend on to run their departments.

It's also money that Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson thinks can be better spent by the county providing its own service. It would be better for all east Pasco residents in the unincorporated areas, not just those in the special taxing districts, Johnson says.

In 1999, county commissioners voted to extend the service contract with the cities through October 2003, then erase the districts and provide county fire coverage from regional stations.

Dade City commissioners want the contracts renewed. Johnson said Wednesday that shouldn't happen.

The switch would raise the tax rate for those in two of the four fire tax districts from $1 a year per $1,000 of taxable value to $1.80 per $1,000 of value. And it would put everyone in the districts farther from the fire stations that serve them, Brock said.

Residents in the other two zones always have paid what the rest of the county pays for fire service, expected to be $1.80 per $1,000 of taxable value in the coming fiscal year.

"I, for the life of me, am trying to figure out what benefit there is to changing it," Brock said at a City Commission meeting Tuesday. "We're able to provide that service for less and offer better service."

Johnson said efforts by Pasco County since 1999 leave the county prepared to offer better service and faster responses than the city.

The county has moved service into the former San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department station and is in negotiations to place county trucks at the Traveler's Rest fire station, Johnson said.

The county will continue to negotiate with the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department for placing trucks there, and Johnson said the county is opening a station in Meadow Pointe this year, moving its Chancey Road station to the intersection of State Road 54 and Eiland Boulevard outside Zephyrhills, and moving a truck stationed in Dade City to U.S. 301 north of the city.

Johnson said the county paid about $100,000 Tuesday for land to build a station along Centennial Boulevard, between Dade City and Zephyrhills.

"We needed a plan, and we've been working on a plan. You have to be proactive," Johnson said. "We're not going to just take the money and run; we're using that money to improve and enhance services."

Johnson said Dade City could save tax money by turning over fire service in the city to a county team, something the county would be willing to do, if asked.

Brock said the county's spread threatens cities.

"That begins to cut right at the core of what a city is," Brock told commissioners.

Of Dade City's $1,390,708 Fire Department budget this year, nearly 37 percent _ $508,633 _ comes from the county contracts. Money from the districts accounts for $389,887 of this year's Zephyrhills fire budget of $1,633,410, about 24 percent.

Dade City Manager Doug Drymon said the issue would come up at an Aug. 1 Municipal Association of Pasco meeting where Dade City and Zephyrhills could lobby other cities in the county for support.

Dade City Mayor Scott Black said residents in the districts _ which surround the cities in inner and outer rings dubbed "doughnuts," _ need to know of the coming change.

"This is an election year," Black said. "This is certainly an issue that we need to increase awareness of."