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CHANGES ARE OVERDUE FOR FIRE DEPARTMENTS

Interim administrator Larry Jennings today will ask the Hernando County Commission to approve his recommendation to appoint a committee to implement operational improvements among the county's six fire departments. At first glance it seems a reasonable approach to a problem that has been discussed for years, and is in the headlines lately because of a recently released study by a consultant.

But for those who remember that previous studies by appointed committees, some dating back almost 20 years, were largely ignored because they were politically indigestible, Jennings' idea evokes a sense of do-nothing deja vu.

Commissioners historically have been more concerned about the political risk posed by moving forward on merging fire districts than actually providing residents the best possible service at the most reasonable cost. Because of the timing and circumstances surrounding the release of the latest study, there is every reason to believe that pattern is in the pipeline again.

The commission agreed last spring to grant a request by residents to place a referendum on the November ballot that will allow eligible Spring Hill voters to choose if they want the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District to be independent or governed by the County Commission. That has placed discussions about merging the fire districts in limbo pending the results of the referendum and is the primary reason - some call it an excuse - there will be no significant movement toward consolidating those two districts or the county's four smaller fire departments.

In the meantime, the consultant's report, which was $128,000 well spent for such a comprehensive analysis, recommended many cost-saving measures that are less far-reaching but nonetheless worth pursuing. Implementing those suggestions is the task Jennings is attempting to undertake with his recommendation for a new study committee.

Jennings' approach is two-pronged. First, he recommends representatives for each fire department get together, decide what they can agree on and develop a timetable for making those changes happen. That's a good first step.

However, the second part of Jennings' recommendation is to appoint another committee - representatives from the three paid fire departments, as well as one at-large person appointed by the County Commission, the Spring Hill Fire Commission and the Brooksville City Council - to hash out the items on which the previous committee could not reach consensus.

That is inherently problematic because the disagreements almost certainly will involve topics that require decisions about policy and finances that are beyond the purview of the committee members. It would make more sense simply to pass on the previous committee's list of dissenting opinions directly to the elected officials who have the power to resolve, or continue to postpone, the issues.

If the commissioners are sincere in wanting to bring about real change in the way emergency fire services are delivered in Hernando County, at today's meeting they will define clearly the committee's assignment by separating operations from policy, and set deadlines for submitting recommendations.

Failing that, the commissioners risk perpetuating the criticism that they are wasting the public's time and money.

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