Rejecting the advice of their legal counsel, county commissioners Tuesday voted unanimously to pursue creation of a separate municipal benefit unit for Township 22 fire service.
Though challenges to the course of action lie ahead and no fee has been determined, Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said it is her goal to make the amount paid by Township 22 residents the same as that paid by those living in the Hernando County Fire Rescue District: a flat rate of $97.30 a year.
"Everybody should be treated equally," she said.
On July 30, commissioners voted not to renew their contract with Brooksville, which had been providing fire service to the area for more than three decades and bringing in roughly $330,000 a year from the deal.
Though the county started providing fire service to the area Oct. 1, the city is still fighting the county takeover in court. The case is now at the appellate level, and it could be six months or more before a decision is made, according to lawyers involved in the case.
Before the city's legal challenge, the county had planned to annex Township 22 into the county district on Dec. 1. The move would have abolished the property value-based fee structure Township 22 residents use to pay for fire service and replaced it with the county's flat fire rate.
Assistant County Attorney Kurt Hitzemann told commissioners that, with the city's appeal pending, such an annexation would be unwise. If the county annexed and the city won its appeal, then the county might have to reconstitute Township 22 from scratch, Hitzemann warned.
The attorney advised that commissioners do nothing at this point.
"This is just flat-out a conservative approach," Hitzemann said. "And it's the approach I would recommend."
No sooner had the attorney finished than Commissioners Betty Whitehouse and Diane Rowden attacked the idea, saying promises had been made to Township 22 residents that must be respected.
"We made a case that we could provide better service at a cheaper cost," Whitehouse said. "That's not what's being done here."
Hitzemann's cautious approach, she said, would not alleviate the current fire service cost burden on Township 22 residents, who, if they own a home valued at $65,000, pay $98 more a year than those in the county service area.
Those individuals had been promised relief, and they should get it, Whitehouse stressed.
County Administrator Dick Radacky said that since the Oct. 1 takeover, Township 22 had received enhanced service at no additional cost. Further, he said, holding off until the lawsuit is resolved did not mean the county would not make good on its promise to take less from Township 22 residents for fire service.
Commission Chairwoman Nancy Robinson sympathized with Radacky's position, but in the end joined the rest of the commissioners in seeking to set up the benefit unit.
The idea, which came from Hitzemann though not with his recommendation, would make the Township 22 and county fire service funding mechanisms the same, while retaining Township 22's boundaries during Brooksville's legal challenge.
The flat fee for Township 22 residents could be effective by Oct. 1, 2003, Hitzemann said, but with time running short to amend the 2003-04 budget to allow for the move, approvals from the county tax collector and property appraiser are needed.
For commissioners to vote on whether to establish the benefit unit, public notice is required once weekly for four weeks. According to Hitzemann, the County Commission could vote on the issue by late December.
_ Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.