Despite overwhelming public support for the status quo, Hernando County officials have recommended big changes for about 2,800 properties in the unincorporated portions of Township 22 Fire District.
County Administrator Richard Radacky is advising commissioners to absorb sections of the district that do not lie within the city of Brooksville, which currently serves the area and has proposed an 18-year contract extension with an automatic 5-year renewal in 2020.
"We can provide a higher, better level of service, and we can reduce the cost" to residents, Radacky said.
Connie Boyer, who lives on the north end of Brooksville, is one of more than 500 district residents who said in a March survey that she preferred to keep city fire service. She reiterated her desires Thursday.
"I think the city should have the fire district simply because sometimes it takes the county too long to get here," Boyer said. "I understand the county is bigger than the city, but we on the north end of town and on the east end of town, we need help too."
Boyer said she wished county and city officials could work out a compromise for the residents. But she figured the county would take it over in the end. If that happens, she said, she'll just accept the new service.
Radacky has recommended rejecting the city's contract offer. The county Fire Rescue District already has made provisions for incorporating the area in next year's budget, Radacky said, keeping the current tax rate of $3 per $1,000 of assessed property value for a year until it can assign flat fees to the area in fiscal 2004.
The county department also has plans to relocate firefighters and equipment into Township 22 and has requested a new fire inspector position for the area, Chief Mike Nickerson said in a memo to commissioners. Five county fire stations also border Township 22 and would provide service as needed, he added.
The county already provides emergency medical services to Township 22.
If commissioners choose not to incorporate Township 22 into the county district, Nickerson said, they would have to reduce the department budget by $284,321. "This will require a (fee) increase and/or matching budget cuts to balance the budget," he wrote.
City Administrator Richard Anderson said the city fire department was ready and willing to keep serving all of Township 22, as it has since 1968.
"We believe we've provided a high level of service for a number of years, and we believe property owners have suggested they prefer us to do that," Anderson said, referring to a survey conducted in March that showed that 95 percent of the 586 respondents wanted no changes.
The city has made its position clear, he said, and has given the county proposed agreements. Its proposal came after months of conversation between city and county leaders; Anderson said Thursday that Radacky had not told him that the recommendation would be to reject the deal.
"At this point, the decision is really up to the county," Anderson said.
Commissioners said they were torn over which direction to take. At its core, the issue boils down to service vs. customer satisfaction.
"When decisions are made, you need to take into consideration the customer," Chairwoman Nancy Robinson said. "They say they're satisfied with the service and say they want to keep it."
Commissioner Mary Aiken said she had received several letters and calls urging her to keep things as they are. Yet county staff reports that Hernando Fire Rescue would be able to better serve the residents also are influencing her viewpoint.
As a result, she said, "I haven't really come to any conclusions."
Nickerson asked commissioners for direction Wednesday during a budget workshop, calling the matter the "first and foremost" issue that needed resolution for his planning purposes. The board did not respond, and it has scheduled discussion on the matter for its regular meeting on Tuesday.
_ Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.