BROOKSVILLE — The City Council isn't sure whether to keep its fire department, but decided earlier this month to hire an interim fire chief to replace David Freda, the former Brooksville chief arrested last year on a charge of organized fraud.
At the same meeting, council members discussed what to do about the dwindling number of Brooksville firefighters in the continuing atmosphere of uncertainty. While the fully staffed department would include 18 employees and a chief, it is shy about half a dozen firefighters.
In March, the council considered a proposal from Hernando County Fire Rescue to take over fire service in the city. City budget shortfalls prompted the council to close the Brooksville Police Department this month, in favor of county law enforcement. Council members are considering similar action with the Brooksville Fire Department.
Three council members decided to keep talking about a county fire service takeover, while Robert Battista and Bill Kemerer wanted to keep a city department, albeit at a lower cost.
But negotiations with the county never began.
A May 1 County Commission budget workshop brought to light that body's budget travails and efforts to change the county fire fee. That generated new concerns by council members who want to keep the city fire department.
To keep the department, Kemerer said, the city needs to: get a new chief; negotiate a mutual-aid agreement with the county; develop a more fair fee structure; negotiate a new firefighter contract; and decide how to structure future department pensions.
"That's a pretty full plate,'' Kemerer said. "I'm afraid that the clock is running now.''
Battista also was concerned about the county's overall budget shortfall.
"It's a trip to nowhere,'' he said. "I think they have a big problem over there.''
Kemerer repeated his hope that the city can create a more cost-effective fire department while also providing better service.
"Well, Bill, I love your persistence,'' said council member Natalie Kahler. She favored keeping fire service negotiations open with the county.
She also expressed concern that firefighters are leaving, just as city police officers left when the council decided to turn law enforcement over to Sheriff Al Nienhuis several weeks ago. Without a full contingent of firefighters, it is hard to make decisions, Kahler said.
She said she found the County Commission discussion about fire fees helpful, and believes Brooksville residents would pay less if the county took over.
Negotiating a county agreement will take time, City Manager Mark Kutney warned the council. It took five or six rounds to reach an agreement with the sheriff, he said.
"I just don't think there is that much to talk about" she said. "We either vote it up or vote it down.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.