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SINCERITY TEST COMING FOR FIRE COMMISSION

Tonight, Spring Hill Fire Rescue District Chief J.J. Morrison is scheduled to report back to his fire commissioners about his appearance last week before the Hernando County Commission. There, he watched the presentation by a consultant who created a master plan for fire services.

After the presentation, Morrison suggested, and the county commissioners agreed, it would be a good idea to appoint a committee of stakeholders to pore over details of the report's findings and recommendations. That's a reasonable approach, given that no significant decisions about consolidating or streamlining services are likely to be made before the Nov. 4 referendum on Spring Hill's independence.

However, if the proposed committee is just a smokescreen to conceal the Spring Hill Fire Commission's demonstrated lack of interest in meshing any of its operations with the county, then members should just say so and not waste anyone's time.

But if that is not the case, and we certainly hope it is not, then the fire commissioners have an opportunity this evening to validate their sincerity by setting a tone of cooperation. Doing so would signal their allegiance to the taxpayers who trust them to provide the best emergency services at the best price during these difficult economic times.

The 574-page, $128,000 report, prepared by the national firm Emergency Services Consulting Inc., identifies several areas that will improve services while cutting costs, including training expenses. The proposed committee, if one is appointed, could concentrate on those recommendations and be that much further ahead of the game come November, when Spring Hill voters will decide if the fire district should be autonomous or absorbed by the County Commission.

One area to explore for potential savings is dispatch services in the county's new Emergency Operations Center in Brooksville. That idea has been a contentious issue and adamantly opposed by the Fire Commission. The consultant's report does not offer a clear-cut opinion on whether that is the way to go, but the consultants said after last week's presentation that it makes good sense from an operational standpoint. They recommended that Sheriff Richard Nugent prepare a detailed estimate and then compare that figure to what is being spent currently. That is a good example of work that can take place now so that the proposed committee of stakeholders could review it before November.

But even if the consolidation of dispatching duties is not part of the committee's purview, the Fire Commission - if it is genuine in its desire to keep an open mind about cooperating with the county to save money and improve services - should verbalize that commitment tonight. If they do not, then it will be apparent they are focused more on obstructionism than cooperation.

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