ZEPHYRHILLS — The Zephyrhills Fire Department will cease operations, possibly by the end of the year, in a merger with Pasco County Fire Rescue, pending contract negotiations and ratification by city and county leaders.
After years of struggling to keep funding the department, the Zephyrhills City Council opted to merge with Pasco County in a unanimous vote Monday, directing staff members to enter into contract negotiations with the county to take over operations.
Funding has been a thorny issue for the Council for years. Recent projections showed that without additional revenue, the cost of running the department would begin cutting into city reserves. Since then, the city has been considering a fire assessment fee on every residential, commercial and nonprofit property in the city. The idea never generated traction among council members over concerns it would cost property owners more than a county tax and leave lingering doubt over future staffing and service needs.
To fully fund the department, a yearly city residential assessment would need to be about $300, with commercial and nonprofit property owners facing rates based on the size of their properties, Zephyrhills City Manager Bill Poe said. The cost of a county Municipal Service Taxing Unit, or MSTU, will increase property taxes, adding 1.8036 mills to property owners' millage rates. A mill represents $1 in tax for every $1,000 of a property's assessed value. On a property valued at $100,000, for example, the additional cost for fire service with the county will be $180.36 a year.
While an assessment could meet the currents needs of an already understaffed department, Poe said, the city would continually have to revisit the rates as new needs emerge.
"My whole goal is safety, so if the city is unable or unwilling to charge a fire assessment, then we need to bring in the county," Poe said.
City Council member Lance Smith said he has concerns with the city assessing residents and businesses, but also the increased taxes on churches and nonprofits, which would be exempt under the county taxing unit.
"It is hard. There are great people in our department who provide great service," Smith said. "I just think an assessment would be an undue burden on our community."
Projections are that all city fire employees will have an opportunity to work for the county, according to Pasco Fire Rescue Chief Scott Cassin.
"That is certainly our goal. Our intention is to bring every single Zephyrhills Fire Department employee over," he said.
A merger also would include a transfer of Zephyrhills Fire Department property and equipment, including two fire stations in the city that Pasco County would take over. A merger will streamline service not only for the city, but for all of East Pasco, Cassin said. Currently, county emergency vehicles have to drive through the city to answers calls east of Zephyrhills, he said.
So how long will Zephyrhills still have a fire department?
A timeline will evolve as logistics and costs are hashed out and approved by the Zephyrhills City Council and the Pasco County Board of County Commissioners. Cassin said the county is hoping to take over service in the city by Jan. 1.