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FIRE RESCUE FEE RISES AGAIN

Commissioners approve a 25 percent increase but hope to offset the cost with budget cuts elsewhere.

After an hour of debate over the financial needs of the Hernando County Fire Rescue District vs. the pain residents are feeling as they struggle to pay their own bills, the County Commission on Tuesday sided with the fire department.

The board unanimously approved a 25 percent increase in the annual fire service fee for owners of single-family homes in unincorporated Hernando County, excluding those served by other fire departments.

Commissioners, however, vowed to try to offset that boost by finding even more cuts in the proposed county budget. They will get their chance to do so today when they hold detailed budget talks.

The increase of $38.50 for single-family homes raised the fee to $194.87, which is estimated to bring in $1.28-million in new money. Fees for owners of vacant land, and commercial or industrial properties will increase by 5.5 percent.

The new fees will be included on the tax notices that will be sent out in the fall.

In 2005, the fire district's budget and funding underwent a complete review and recalculation. The County Commission chose last year to phase in higher fees rather than immediately implement what was recommended in that study.

District Fire Chief Mike Nickerson reminded the commission that the services provided by the district are necessary and save lives. The proposed fee increases basically maintain the status quo in terms of positions and services, he said.

Cutting the budget, he said, would mean cutting services.

"If that's the level of service we decide we need, we need to fund that,'' Nickerson said. "It's just dollars and cents. ... That's just the bottom line.''

Nickerson showed an analysis showing that the fire and emergency medical services provided by Hernando Fire Rescue District are less expensive than the other fire districts in the county. The Hernando district covers about 420 square miles and serves 65,000 residents.

He also showed a study that indicated how fire insurance costs would rise if the district lowered services.

Commissioner Chris Kingsley said he was sorry that the fire district had to come forward again this year seeking an increase. He said that was because the commission didn't approve the full fee increase last year.

Commissioner Diane Rowden also said she was sorry the commission had to go through the same exercise with a number of employees from the district packing Tuesday's commission meeting "begging for increases.''

"It's important that we fund our public services. We have to have fire services and EMS,'' she said.

Nobleton resident Anna Liisa Covell reminded the commissioners that the reason they approved only part of the fee increase last year was so that the county could study fire service fee structures, a study not yet concluded.

She criticized the district for having so many vehicles that are underused, according to a recent county vehicle audit. She also was critical of salary levels for district employees and officials and urged commissioners to think about the impact their decision was going to have on county taxpayers.

"You're taxing me out of my house and home, almost,'' Covell said.

Others at Tuesday's meeting were critical of fire officials that had been seen driving fire trucks to local shopping centers to stop by Starbucks or into neighborhoods to help an off-duty officer move his boat. Nickerson said he was looking into those reports.

While Hernando resident Elizabeth Pohl-Provost said she had no criticism of the district, she couldn't see the overall fire fee doubling in recent years. "That's outrageous,'' she said. "We taxpayers of Hernando County elected you to be good stewards of our money.''

"Where did the money go?'' asked Linda Hayward, a local tax reduction advocate.

Nickerson said that the district's population has grown by about 35 percent since 2000 and that the district is the busiest in the county. Last year it handled 13,000 calls for service, he said.

Others, including several county employees, urged the commission to approve the increase citing the importance of keeping public safety a priority and helping a fire district, which has been trying to build up to a staffing level that meets safety requirements.

Kathy Oleson told her emotional story of the importance of an emergency response. Her husband, Jim Oleson, was shot by intruders several months ago at their Boyett's Grove store. She described how focused she was on calling 911 and how grateful she was when help arrived.

"I don't think $38 (for the increase) is enough,'' she said.

"Tax relief, we all need it,'' said firefighter Jason Brazinski, president of the local firefighters' union. He said that it is all relative. "If somebody's house on fire, they don't care about tax relief.''

Brazinski said the district was stretched thin and needed the resources. "We have 400 square miles and eight fire engines,'' he said. "You do the math.''

Commissioner David Russell said it was clear that people wanted tax relief, but "they don't want their emergency services to suffer.''

He urged the commissioners to cut from other areas of the budget to provide relief to taxpayers. Kingsley said that he agreed.

"We need to fund this fire department,'' he said. "They have been playing catch up.''

"I'm sure we can find other ways to save,'' said Commissioner Rose Rocco.

Commissioners meet in a special meeting at 9 a.m. today to discuss their budget. Another meeting is also slated for 9 a.m. Thursday if they do not conclude discussions today.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

IN DEPTH

In other business

- Commissioners continued a planned discussion about the massive Sunrise project to the Sept. 12 land use meeting. During that session, they will consider the development of regional impact for the project as well as an area plan and a special impact fee overlay district. Before that date, they plan to meet with residents of nearby Ridge Manor to talk about the details of the plan.

- Commissioners voted 3-2 to reconsider a denial of a master plan for a property planned for a convenience store with five fueling stations. The property is near the site Wal-Mart is considering for a new Superstore at Mariner Boulevard and County Line Road. The rehearing on the plan is slated for Sept. 12.

- Michael Ransaw of Youth Recovery Services Inc. gave commissioners a brief overview of the nonprofit's mission to help at-risk youth in Hernando County. He said he needed moral support from the county and would return to a future meeting to provide more details of the organization's services, which range from homework assistance to substance abuse education. More information is available at www.youthrecoveryservices.com.

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