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FIRE SERVICES FUNDING AT ISSUE

The 2004 special taxing district might distribute costs more fairly.

Brooksville residents could see some changes in the way they pay for their fire services.

A review urged by the city manager could be the first step toward ensuring that all residents pay their fair share for fire protection. Or, it could kill a special taxing mechanism that has collected dust on a shelf for nearly four years.

The Brooksville City Council will decide Monday night whether to explore whether the special taxing district is a feasible funding option for the city. The council will also consider changes to the mutual aid arrangement between the city and county fire services that could erase jurisdictional boundaries and lead to faster responses to emergencies.

City Manager T. Jennene Norman-Vacha has urged council members, who also serve as the governing board of the district, to approve using the new funding means for fire services.

"The mechanism is there but nothing has been put in place to use it," Norman-Vacha said Friday. "We haven't had an opportunity as a staff to tell the council whether we think it's a useful mechanism or not."

The City Council voted to create the special taxing district in November 2004, giving council members the ability to assess annual fees for fire services.

Money to operate the Brooksville Fire Department, $1.5-million in the 2007-08 budget, now comes from property taxes. City officials hope to distribute the costs more equitably among businesses and residents, some of whom do not pay property taxes.

By using the special taxing district option, fire service funding would be removed from the general fund, potentially lowering the city's millage rate.

Through the special district, the city then would assess a fee on each property, similar to how Hernando County assesses and collects funds for fire services. The district would have a fixed rate in addition to variables based on a parcel's level of service and square footage, although those numbers have not been determined.

Brooksville has held off on implementing the system after an initial analysis showed the properties within the city limits could not support the full funding of the fire service.

Norman-Vacha would like an updated analysis to determine if the fee structure could be implemented in time for the fiscal year 2009 budget process.

If not, Norman-Vacha said, the district could be dissolved until the time was right to consider it again. Brooksville pays the state $175 annually to keep the taxing mechanism alive, at least on the books.

"We don't need to keep paying the state $175 each year if we're not going to use it," Norman-Vacha said. "We need to assess whether it's a usable tool or not."

Also on the agenda at Monday's meeting, council members will consider an agreement between the Brooksville Fire Department and Hernando County Fire Rescue that would essentially end jurisdictional boundaries and allow for immediate response by the closest agency.

The county commissioners will vote on a similar "mutual aid agreement" during their meeting Tuesday. Norman-Vacha recommended approval of the measure in a memo to council members that accompanied the agenda item.

The council will also vote on a resolution that would authorize the city to pursue eminent domain proceedings against the Hernando County Fair Association as part of construction for the planned north-south connector road known as Governor Boulevard. The road is expected to connect U.S. 41 to Cortez Boulevard via Southern Hills Boulevard, a route that would run through property owned by the city and the county as well as a portion controlled by the fair association.

Joel Anderson can be reached at joelanderson@sptimes.com or 754-6120.

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