Spring Hill Florida--Fire Department Works Towards Independance
Several months ago I started a thread about this department and it's quest to become an independant tax district. I searched back for it and could not find it. So here is a follow up story
St. Petersburg Times--Hernando Edition
Fire district takes bold campaign approach
State elections codes can't stop Spring Hill Fire Rescue District from using signs and stickers to campaign for independence from the county.
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 10, 2002
SPRING HILL -- When it comes to its upcoming vote for independence, there's little question where the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District stands on the issue.
Signs planted in front of the district's fire stations and stickers on its emergency vehicles -- even ambulances -- boldly declare "Independence Yes." It's a direct appeal for support in their effort to shake free from county control on Nov. 5.
The approach is a departure from what Hernando County voters saw in 1998 -- the last time a local referendum was on the ballot.
In 1998, the County Commission and the School Board sought voter support for new taxes. Their leaders made stump speeches promoting their cases to anyone who would listen. They also printed up brochures describing what the taxes were about.
Yet, they never resorted to putting "Vote Yes" stickers on public vehicles. Nor did they stick "Vote Yes" signs in schoolyards or on the lawn of the county courthouse.
The fire district's in-your-face campaign is different. But it is not out of line with state election laws, said Jenny Nash, press secretary for the Florida Department of State, which includes the Division of Elections.
State law prohibits individual candidates from using state owned vehicles to further their candidacies. But this is a referendum, not an election involving candidates.
State law also prohibits public officials from using their authority or influence to coerce or influence another person's vote. But state elections officials say that doesn't apply here either.
There is nothing in the state elections codes to block activities by agencies like the fire district, said Helen Jones, a spokesperson for the Florida Commission on Ethics.
While the ethics commission has jurisdiction when it comes to individual government officials but not agencies, Jones still said it is not a misuse of a public office so long as there is no "wrongful intent" and their actions are in the public's best interest.
In fact, state elections officials say there is no mandate requiring government agencies to remain neutral in such a referendum.
"It's definitely legal to educate people about the subject," said Spring Hill fire chief J.J. Morrison. "We look at it as an educational tool to let the people know that there's an issue out there that their elected representatives feel is important to them."
There's nothing about the fire district's campaign that is contrary to county government policies because the ambulances and the fire stations are property of the fire district, said County Administrator Richard Radacky.
The signs on the lawns are not a problem so long as they aren't planted in county rights of way, said Kent Weissinger, an assistant county attorney. Already, a few have been planted in the wrong place and they were removed, Morrison said.
The Spring Hill Fire PAC, as its known, purchased 1,000 signs promoting a yes vote on the independence issue, said John Liparito, a firefighter/paramedic who is a union member. He did not know how much the signs cost.
For some reason, about 500 signs are missing, Liparito said. He's not sure why. But it's not because they were in county rights of way, he said.
Aside from the signs, the fire district itself spent about $550 to print 20,000 paper brochures, which include the "Independence Vote YES" message.
Weissinger, the county attorney, said the Florida Supreme Court ruled that such spending by local governments is legal. But it is a different tactic than the School Board took in 1998 on its sales tax campaign.
Back then, the School Board made sure anything telling people to vote yes -- material that went beyond being merely informational -- was not paid for with public money.
-- Times staff writer Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to email@example.com.
Information Session Lacks Attendance
St. Petersburg Times.... Hernando Edition
Few folks show up for fire forum
Hoping to educate people about their bid for independence, Spring Hill fire officials reserve an auditorium and cook hot dogs but draw a slim crowd.
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 26, 2002
SPRING HILL -- Maybe it was the homecoming festivities across the street or competition from another political forum. Maybe people's minds are already made up. Or perhaps no one really cares.
But the Spring Hill fire district's effort Thursday night to educate voters about its bid for independence from county oversight drew only about 20 people to the Springstead High School theater.
All but a handful were fire district employees.
The crowd was so slim that fire officials, who served up hot dogs and sodas for the occasion, nearly packed up and went home. In the end, Fire Commissioners Bob Kanner and Gene Panozzo and Fire Chief J.J. Morrison decided that the few who came shouldn't be turned away.
So, in a 600-seat auditorium, they had a cozy chat with the friends, staff members and precious few uncommitted voters who showed up for the event.
"I got my feelings hurt," Morrison joked with the small assembly. "We cooked dinner. We rented a hall. Nobody showed up."
In truth, Springstead waived its rental fee because of the fire district's help with putting crews at football games and homecoming bonfires.
Morrison said the poor turnout may have been caused by bad scheduling on his part.
Political junkies in Spring Hill had other options Thursday, including a candidate forum at Timber Pines that drew about 400 people. And locals with ties to Springstead also had the school's homecoming variety show at the football stadium.
But Panozzo called the low turnout "disturbing." He said it could mean that voters have already made up their minds and that they might not be open to persuasion.
But Morrison was more upbeat.
"I'm hoping this is a message from the people that they are satisfied with the fire board and the decisions their fire board is making," he said. "But we will have an answer on Nov. 5."
Among the few undecided and detached voters in the audience were Marlene and Fred Ruebel, who have lived in Spring Hill for two years.
What they heard from fire officials -- that independence from the county would help prevent the Spring Hill fire district from being absorbed by the county fire district -- sounded good to them. But they said the discussion was a little one-sided in favor of independence.
Fred and Inge Zant thought fire officials were persuasive, even though Mrs. Zant said she doesn't understand their argument that, if it ever took over, the county might diminish fire service to Spring Hill in order to spread resources to other parts of the county.
"I can't figure out why Hernando County would take away engines from its most densely populated area," she said.
Independance Questioned By Some
St. Petersburg Times Hernando Edition
Oversight of district at issue in vote
The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District has grown throughout the decades into a respected unit. But can its leaders be trusted on their own?
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 29, 2002
SPRING HILL -- It has been 30 years, but Pat Fleck remembers her first encounter with the volunteer Spring Hill fire department and its first ambulance -- a converted hearse donated by a local funeral home.
Her husband, Bill, was having a heart attack. He was determined to be treated at a hospital in Dunedin, not Brooksville. But the ambulance crew didn't know the way to Dunedin. Even when Fleck offered to lead them, the ambulance ran out of gas.
Fleck's husband survived the trip. And despite the misadventure, Fleck has come to respect the once ragtag outfit that evolved into Spring Hill Fire Rescue.
"They grew into a great department," said Fleck, a real estate broker and Spring Hill resident since 1968.
Now, the issue facing Spring Hill residents as they head into the voting booth next Tuesday is whether they feel their fire department is ready to stand on its own -- to be independent.
Since 1974, when Spring Hill voters created their own fire district and approved an extra tax to pay for it, the Hernando County Commission has acted as sort of a big brother, watching over the fire district's shoulder. It has the ultimate authority to approve the fire district's budget. If the referendum passes, that relationship would end.
Fire officials say independence will ensure that good fire service continues and that the county doesn't completely take over the department.
Others, even those neutral about independence, say the current setup with county oversight offers extra accountability that would be lost with independence. They say a county takeover is unlikely.
The issue at hand is unique in that the fire department's skill at putting out fires and saving lives is not questioned. In fact, other fire departments in the county respect the professionalism in Spring Hill. County commissioners say complaints are rare.
But the same cannot be said for the fire commission -- the five-member board responsible for governing the fire district. Its history has at times been comical; at times much worse.
It is a board that tried to oust one of its own members for sleeping through meetings.
It is a board that once added two water scooters to its arsenal of rescue equipment only to be embarrassed when, a year later, the only service call it had to show for the flashy amenity was the rescue of a pair of goats.
It is a board so rife with infighting and pettiness in 1993 that Spring Hill residents compared its antics to Abbott and Costello sketches, comic strips and the circus. There was one request that the County Commission disband the fire board -- from a fire commissioner.
And it is a board that, as recently as this summer, was decried as a group of insensitive "Neanderthals" for its response to allegations that three of its firefighters raped a woman in a hotel room just north of Orlando.
No arrests have been made and the criminal investigation continues. But when the matter became public, some fire board members immediately questioned the woman's credibility. One referred to her as a "groupie firefighter girl."
Women's activists lambasted them. County commissioners chided them. They were skewered on newspaper opinion pages. And some said the response showed that the fire commission wasn't ready for self-governance.
"Independence implies that the district will make mature, professional judgments that can be trusted and relied upon by residents," local activist Janey Baldwin wrote in a letter to the Hernando Times. "The recent behavior of firefighters and fire commissioners has revealed major deficiencies in their thinking and actions."
The fire board's greatest obstacle may be itself.
On one hand, it can claim some credit for the respect its fire department has earned in the community. Compared to other fire departments in Hernando, its emergency response times are faster and its firefighters better paid. Its budget is basically sound.
On the other, the board has well-known tendencies of bickering and causing controversy. It has flirted with Sunshine Law violations by calling emergency meetings with little notice. Some say it needs watching over.
Spring Hill voters have previously defeated a referendum on independence -- in 1992. A decade later, fire commissioners say the issue needs another look because a new threat looms.
Fire commissioners say the County Commission's effort to absorb the Township 22 fire district outside Brooksville was a wakeup call. They fear the County Commission could try to make Spring Hill's fire department part of theirs.
That would dilute service to Spring Hill, fire commissioners warn, lengthening response times and spreading firefighters and engine units thinner.
But the reality of that threat is questionable.
Fire district officials acknowledge that current members of the County Commission have shown no interest in consolidation. The County Commission even sang the fire district's praises when it passed the resolution needed to put this independence vote on the ballot.
Yet fire chief J.J. Morrison is concerned that it might not always be so, particularly as new commissioners are elected. Fire board chairman Bob Kanner warned a small crowd at a voter forum last week that county commissioners could gobble up the Spring Hill fire district "with the stroke of a pen."
But Bruce Snow, the longtime county attorney who wrote the fire district's charter, said the matter is much more murky from a legal standpoint. He's not sure it would be so easy.
Township 22 was created to be overseen solely by the County Commission. It had no elected governing board. The county took back fire protection in Township 22 when its contract with the city of Brooksville expired. Still, the change is being fought in court.
A takeover of the Spring Hill fire district would seem more complicated, largely because of Spring Hill's elected fire board.
It would be tougher politically, too. Spring Hill has close to 70,000 people -- about half the county's population -- and dwarfs Township 22. County commissioners, particularly those from Spring Hill, might force a takeover at their own political peril.
County Commissioner Diane Rowden, who is neutral on the Spring Hill independence issue, said comparisons with Township 22 are not fair. "They're playing on the emotions of the people, because it isn't the same," she said. "They are trying to scare the people."
Aside from consolidation, the other major issue is whether independence would give Spring Hill residents more say in their fire district's governance -- or less.
Fire district officials say independence will bring governance closer to home. Instead of the County Commission in Brooksville having the final say, the buck would stop in Spring Hill, with fire commissioners who live in Spring Hill.
They note that county commissioners may live in far-flung corners of the county and that they must represent the needs of the whole county. Fire commissioners thus argue that independence would make the fire district more accountable to the people it serves.
Pat Fleck is one of them.
"They do a good job and I think they should be independent. I think the county gets too much from Spring Hill right now," said Fleck, who also thinks Spring Hill should incorporate as a city.
The flip side is that, if independence passes, Spring Hill residents dissatisfied with a fire commission decision must take appeals to state legislators in Tallahassee, rather than county commissioners who may live just down the street. Some say loss of the county's involvement would mean less local accountability.
In any case, independence would greatly change how the fire district's books are kept and monitored.
Currently, the county Clerk of Court's office reviews a wide range of fire district business. It ensures that purchases are made properly, payrolls handled accurately and investments managed wisely. Each year, it ensures that the fire district's books are audited along with the rest of the county government's operations.
But if independence passes, the fire district alone will be responsible for such duties.
Morrison says that won't be a problem. Already, he says, his staff performs some of the same work as the clerk's office. For things it can't do -- such as audits -- it can hire outside firms. When everything is added up, Morrison said independence could save about $30,000 a year. In an $8-million annual budget, it's a small savings, he said, but a savings nonetheless.
But county Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai is skeptical.
She says her department has four certified public accountants to oversee things. The fire district has none. She says the county's investment pool is bigger and thus gets better interest rates than Spring Hill would alone.
Where the fire district sees redundancies, Nicolai sees oversight. "I question why they have a real problem with oversight," she said. "They don't have very good policies and procedures. They have gotten a little bit better because we have made a big deal out of them. There have been problems in the past because they weren't following policies and procedures. They were too generic or too vague.
"It is a check and balance in the system and they are going to lose a check and balance."
So far, tax rates have been mostly a nonissue in the independence debate.
Currently, Spring Hill taxpayers pay $2.75 for every $1,000 of their nonexempt taxable property. The way the ballot question is worded, an independent fire district could increase that tax rate only by going to the voters in another referendum. Morrison said his current 5-year budget projections show no need for a tax increase.
Snow, the former county attorney, said he sees little wiggle room around the 2.75-mill cap. But he notes that independence would give the fire district sole control of other revenue sources, such as ambulance fees.
But former County Commissioner Tony Mosca, an avid critic of fire independence now and in 1992, says wiggle room may exist.
If voters approve independence next week, the state Legislature will have to pass a new law in the spring setting ground rules for the independent fire district.
Mosca says that if fire commissioners want higher taxes in the future, all they must do is convince lawmakers in Tallahassee to go along with it. That, of course, would require the complicity of lawmakers with constituents in Spring Hill.
Mosca shares the same concern about the commissioners setting themselves a salary. They now work as volunteers and have pledged to continue to do so. But he says if they change their minds, they could get the Legislature to approve pay.
Keeping control closer to home, with County Commission oversight, is the best accountability, Mosca said.
"I know (independence) is a bad idea. I've been down this road before," he said. "They do not have an argument and they know it. There was no argument 10 years ago and there's no argument today."
Morrison, the Spring Hill fire chief, likes to talk about the fire district that residents "know and love" or that they "bought and paid for themselves." He casts independence in terms of protecting family property.
"I think we've grown up," Morrison said. "It's time for us to cut the apron strings."
From a more neutral perch, Hernando County Fire Rescue director Mike Nickerson says Spring Hill runs a good agency now and will continue to do so if independent. He says Spring Hill's citylike structure might best be served by a stand-alone fire district, though some economies of scale could be achieved in a consolidated approach.
In any case, Nickerson said, fire service must stay the same or improve for consolidation to be considered. Other districts in the county have never seen a firefighter laid off or station shut down due to consolidation. That said, the county's current plans call for leaving Spring Hill alone. Nickerson says the vote will mean little in the end.
"My father asked me about independence and he lives in Spring Hill," Nickerson said. "I really have no feeling on it. It would never have any effect either way."
-- Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The sparring continues...
Here are some letters to the editor as published today....
Commissioner-elect neither pro nor anti union
Published: Oct 31, 2002
In your editorial on Fire Rescue Independence issue on October 11, you opined that with Mr. Kanner's leaving the fire board, that "...it's likely County Commissioners will appoint another pro-union fire commissioner..."
I AM the commission-elect for the Spring Hill Fire District, having filed appropriately with no opposition. To my knowledge no "appointment" by the county is necessary.
And for the record, I view myself as "pro-Spring Hill", not pro (or anti) union.
I am a proud member of the Hernando County Republican Executive Committee, and a past member of the Board of Directors of Timber Pines...a major user of fire rescue services.
I believe the record of the County Commission with respect to Township 22 is cause enough to vote "yes" on Independence. Tax dollars raised in Spring Hill should stay in Spring Hill. This is especially true given the expected growth in demand for Fire Rescue services outside of the Spring Hill District, and the paucity of county resources to handle it.
Darryl J. Hamilton
Keep it local; vote against independence
Published: Nov 1, 2002
The independence issue has not stirred much interest in Spring Hill where voters will be asked Tuesday to set the community's fire department free of county control.
It's the second time voters have been asked to sever the fire and rescue district ties from the county board of commissioners.
More than 10 years ago a similar referendum failed and this time around it should also be voted down.
Much of the impetus to sever the relationship has come from the firefighters union that is fearful the county will swallow up the Spring Hill department like it did Township 22, the geographical ring around Brooksville that for years was served by the city's fire department. Last month, the county took over the township along with $365,000 of revenue generated by taxes - money the city had included in its budget. The takeover resulted in bad blood between the city and county, as well as litigation.
Many firefighters in Spring Hill believe the same thing could happen to their fire district despite statements from county commissioners that such a plan is being considered.
Their concerns are justified but when the political fallout of such a move is considered, such a takeover would never happen.
We believe there is no good reason to cut ties with the county. We doubt the county board would ever take over the fire district because of the community's strong political clout and large population - the outcry from the citizenry would simply drown out any such move. And boards in this county are very sensitive to such outcries.
If independence is approved, Spring Hill residents would no longer have a local board of appeal. If they disliked what fire commissioners were doing, they would have to take their gripes to the bureaucrats in Tallahassee.
This fire board needs the throttle of a county board. Several of the commissioners are too cozy with the fire union, one of them is an unabashed partisan and in future elections it is probable the union will do all it can to pack the board with sympathizers.
We don't have a problem with a union person serving on the fire board or with the union trying to influence decisions - that's the American way. But to pack a board with fire commissioners who only vote the union line would be a disaster. The fire district belongs to the people of Spring Hill and they would be wise to keep local control of the fire department by voting against independence in Tuesday's general election.
An October 1 Article in the Hernando Today
Should Spring Hill's fire department be free of county control?MICHAEL D. BATES email@example.com
Published: Oct 31, 2002
SPRING HILL - Last summer, Spring Hill firefighters predicted county commissioners would take over Township 22 and incorporate that area into the county's own fire department.
Hernando County Fire Rescue District was having money problems and Township 22, which encompasses 36 square miles around Brooksville, was a lucrative financial plum.
Spring Hill firefighter union members, worried the county would set its sights on their department, asked their five-member elected board to adopt a resolution asking for independence from the county.
Fire commissioners, unwilling to commit, agreed to look into the matter.
A month later, county commissioners voted 3-2 to sever its contract with the Brooksville fire department and allow county firefighters to provide service to Township 22.
Soon after, Spring Hill fire commissioners readily agreed to adopt the resolution and, after much fine-tuning on the language, the referendum asking taxpayers to approve independence was drafted.
Since then, the district has promoted independence at every opportunity: at a recent town hall meeting at Springstead Theater, at a meeting of Timber Pines homeowners and a well-attended Sunday afternoon rally at district headquarters.
The idea, commissioners reasoned, was to educate voters, many of whom they believed did not know the benefits of becoming an independent special district, breaking with the county.
Next Tuesday, they will find out if their efforts were successful.
Spring Hill taxpayers go to the polls and vote on the referendum which, because of a crowded ballot, will be shorter than originally planned.
The referendum will read: "Do you want Spring Hill Fire and Rescue to become an independent special district? Yes or No?"
The Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District, with its $8 million budget, has roughly 90 employees who cover 47 square miles. Taxpayers pay 2.75 mills in ad valorem taxes for the service.
County commissioners have historically maintained a hands-off policy toward Spring Hill, limiting their involvement to the annual budget review or costly budget purchases.
In 1992, Spring Hill taxpayers voted down a referendum that would have made their fire district independent from county control.
Spring Hill Fire Chief J.J. Morrison estimates the district would save $50,000 the first year of independence by reducing redundant payroll and purchasing paperwork.
Currently there are 52 special districts in Florida. Spring Hill is one of two that remains dependent.
Independence critics argue that severing ties with the county would leave fire commissioners free to spend taxpayer money indiscriminately with no supervision.
What's to prevent commissioners, they say, from spending thousands of dollars on a ladder truck or other pieces of equipment?
"It would be the same thing as the school board or county commissioners," counters Fire Commissioner Gene Panozzo. "It would be overseen by the state."
Taxpayers, Panozzo said, would have the ultimate say-so because they would have the power to vote their elected representatives to the fire board out of office.
Opponents also worry that the fire board could raise taxes. However, the millage rate could not change unless voters requested it via a separate referendum.
"The people would have to vote themselves an increase, which is never going to happen," Panozzo said.
Critics fear that the volunteer fire commissioners would vote themselves a salary. The state legislature would have to approve such a move.
There is a guest column in the Hernando Times edition of the St. Petersburg Times from Jeff Hollander who is a current fire commissioner in Spring Hill. His column simply states the facts relating to State Law and the fact that if the quest for independance is successful taxpayers in the district will see no tax increase, save approximately $30,000 per year for the next 5 years and any tax increase requires an approval through referendum. He states the department has operated within budget for 25 years under fire department administration. Spring Hill is one of only two remaining tax districts out of the State's 52 similar departments that remains dependant on its' County
District Again Denied It's Independance
The voter denied the right to vote mentioned in this article is none other than me...Imagine that... (see thread in this forum title "Another Florida Election SNAFU")
St. Petersburg Times--Hernando Edition
Spring Hill Fire and Rescue: Fire district to remain under county control
By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 6, 2002
SPRING HILL -- Spring Hill voters on Tuesday rejected their fire district's bid for independence by an even wider margin than they did 10 years ago.
Spring Hill firefighters and fire commissioners wanted to sever ties to the Hernando County Commission. They said it was the only way to guarantee their department wouldn't be absorbed into the county fire system.
Though no focused opposition arose beforehand, voters made it clear the fire commission's history of infighting gave them doubts about its ability to govern itself.
John and Marianne Rizzuto, both 55, said the fire commission needs the county's watchful eye.
"From what I've seen, there's always something going on over there," Mr. Rizzuto said.
Elizabeth Olejnik, 48, said she feared an independent fire district might cost taxpayers more money.
Independence last came up in 1992, when 53 percent opposed it.
At least one voter was denied an opportunity to vote on independence. caaptstanm1, who voted at Precinct 29 (the Moose Lodge on Mariner Boulevard), said he was given a ballot with no referendum question on it.
He raised the issue with a poll worker, but was told no one at the precinct could vote on the fire question, even though he pays taxes to the fire district.
Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said some Precinct 29 voters live in the fire district and some do not. The precinct had two sets of ballots -- one with the question, one without. Apparently, Mettinger got the wrong one, she said.