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Brooksville City Council abandons idea of closing fire department

The Brooksville Fire Department station at 85 Veterans Ave. After months of discussion Monday night, the Brooksville City Council abandoned the idea of closing its fire department and contracting with Hernando County for fire services. DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times
Published Jun. 19, 2018

BROOKSVILLE — After months of discussion ending in a three-hour debate Monday night, Brooksville City Council abandoned the idea of closing its fire department and contracting with Hernando County for fire services.

City Council Member Joe Bernardini, who had been the swing vote on the divided council for the last few public discussions, decided that it was time to let the dust settle on the recent closure of the Brooksville Police Department and allow the newly-hired interim fire chief, Ronald Snowberger, to take a shot at putting the disheveled city fire service back together.

For Bernardini, while the police department needed to be closed because of cost issues, personnel issues tore the fire department apart.

Bernardini said he wanted to allow a year to see if improvements would take hold. But strong supporters of the fire department, Vice Mayor Robert Battista and Council Member Bill Kemerer, said setting another date in the future for demoralized fire employees was not the right answer.

In the final vote, it was only Council Member Natalie Kahler, who made a motion to turn city fire service over to the county. No other council member supported the motion.

Kahler argued that city residents deserved advanced life support response from its firefighters, as county residents now receive. She said waiting between 18 months and two years was too long for that, and that bringing in new blood to run the city fire department now was just too late to fix many issues.

But Battista said that in his years working for public entities, he had never seen a giveaway of resources as described in the proposed county contract. He said it could be seen as malfeasance if the council approved it.

City fire services have struggled in recent months. Former fire chief David Freda is facing charges of organized fraud, and the city has grappled with financial issues and a litany of leadership, equipment and staffing issues at the station Brooksville Fire shares with Hernando County Fire Rescue.

Currently, only a dozen firefighters are employed by the city when the staffing level should be at 18. Council members acknowledged they were to blame for some of the uncertainty that drove fire department employees to look for work elsewhere.

They also placed some blame on former city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha for the financial issues they faced and for her decision to hire Freda to run the department.

Final sticking points for city council members included concern about whether the county would give existing city firefighters priority interviews over other applicants, providing a clause in the contract to allow the city to end the county's involvement in the future and the allocation of fire resources within city limits.

Another complication came earlier this month, when the county moved its Engine 10 out of the Brooksville station to Station 5 on Eldridge Road in Spring Hill. That station took a hit in February 2017 when the Hernando Beach Volunteer Fire Department closed abruptly and the county had to staff that location. Since then, county records have shown a great need for the engine at the Spring Hill station, according to a county media release.

The city's discussion came too late to allow funding of city fire services under the same fee system the county has just adopted for the new fiscal year. Instead, the county offered an option which would have charged the city $1.52 million over the next year to provide county fire service to Brooksville residents.

While Kahler touted the county fire service as providing more for city residents than the city service, those who favored the city department argued that turning the job over to the county would take away any control from the city and put Brooksville at risk for future tax increases by the County Commission.

City Manager Mark Kutney recently hired Snowberger to be the new interim chief. Snowberger assured council members that he could build from the good leadership foundation now in the department and have a fully functioning city fire service again within a year. That did not count adding advanced life support services, which several council members said they hope to have the county help the city establish in the coming months.

Snowberger previously served as chief of the Mount Dora Fire Department, helping them transition from basic life support services to advanced life support services.

>>>Previous coverage:> Brooksville Council to hire fire chief, keep talking about county fire service takeover

>>>Previous coverage:> Brooksville council undecided about hiring county fire services for city

Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1434.

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