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SPRING HILL TAX BID SHOT DOWN

A judge declined Monday to extend an agreement that has allowed Hernando County to collect property taxes on behalf of the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District.

Although that still leaves open the probability of a special election next month to once again ask Spring Hill voters to give the fire district its own taxing authority, the fire commission agreed late Monday to take one more shot on Tuesday at persuading the County Commission to keep things as they are.

District Chief Mike Rampino will try to appeal to the commission to renew the current inter-local agreement for a year in an attempt to avoid a special mail-in election that could cost the district upward of $150,000.

Earlier Monday, Circuit Judge William T. Swigert listened to arguments by attorneys representing the district, the County Commission and Clerk of Court's Office. He ended up ruling against Spring Hill Fire's emergency motion to maintain the status quo, saying he didn't think it was within his jurisdiction to get involved in what he felt was a legislative matter.

"I'm concerned that this is a place where we don't need to be," said Swigert, who presided over a 2009 case that allowed the county to continue collecting the district's taxes until the district held a referendum asking for its own taxing authority. Voters rejected the referendum last year, and the agreement expires Sept. 30.

In essence, Swigert denied the district's stop-gap motion because he felt all parties weren't in agreement over the matter and said he was uncomfortable because voters already decided last year that they didn't want to pay taxes to the district.

Assistant county attorney Jon Jouben and attorney Tom Hogan Jr., who represents Clerk of Courts Karen Nicolai, presented similar arguments. Jouben said extending the agreement constituted "an unconstitutional situation" that "only the public can change." Hogan said doing so could leave Hernando vulnerable to a legal whiplash should someone choose to file a lawsuit over the issue.

Attorney Bruce Snow countered their argument, saying the county has been collecting taxes for fire services from the people of Spring Hill through a municipal services taxing unit since 1993.

"The state statutes permit the county to do it," Snow said. "That structure is already in place."

Swigert however, didn't preclude the possibility that the County Commission could agree to renew its agreement with the fire district. With that hope, three of the fire district's five commissioners said they plan to show up at the commission's meeting.

"We just want to be heard," fire commissioner Sherry Adler said. "We think we have a good fire district, and it's worth holding on to."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

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