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Fire board urged to seek independence

A firefighters union official fears the county will absorb the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District. The board appears divided.

By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

SPRING HILL -- John Ferriero believes it is only a matter of time before Hernando County makes a move to absorb the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District.

He believes this despite decades of virtually hands-off oversight by a series of county commissioners who have repeatedly pledged not to take over the department.

But as head of the Spring Hill firefighters union, Ferriero worries about the future and wants more than promises: He wants a guarantee. With a quick sweep of the pen, he argues, county commissioners could dissolve the district and assume control of its staff and equipment.

As proof of the potential threat, Ferriero points to financial troubles plaguing the county's consolidated fire rescue service and a recent proposal to boost revenue by annexing Township 22, which is now served primarily by the city of Brooksville.

"The next logical move for them is, "Let's continue westward to Spring Hill,' " he said. "That is not paranoia. That is fiduciary reality."

Now, Ferriero is urging fire commissioners to pursue independence from the county.

But the board, which is down one member since Dennis Andrews resigned last month after applying to become the district's next assistant chief, appears divided.

Commissioners Gene Panozzo and Jeff Hollander support independence, saying it is the only way to guarantee financial security for the district and continued top-flight service for taxpayers.

But Commissioner Rick Martin is not convinced the matter deserves urgent priority, especially considering a laundry list of unfinished projects the district has, even as the administration remains understaffed.

And Chairman Bob Kanner, who has announced he will run for County Commission in November, has refused to take a side without more information.

All of which leaves Ferriero scrambling for backers.

He has placed calls to county commissioners and state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, lobbying for their support on independence, which would require an act of the Florida Legislature.

On Wednesday, Ferriero will make his case during a 7 p.m. fire commission workshop at district headquarters at 3445 Bob Hartung Court. The workshop is open to the public.

"If they don't embrace it . . . it's dead in the water," he said.

But complicating the issue are procedural and political questions.

Fire district lawyer Andrew Salzman said no referendum of Spring Hill voters is required to grant the district's independence, but commissioners disagree about whether the matter should be decided at the polls.

In 1992, voters shot down a similar bid, and county commissioners later turned the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District into a municipal services taxing unit under authority of the County Commission.

Kanner said he has an open mind but thinks the ultimate decision should lie with voters.

"The people are very well educated in Spring Hill, and I think they know what they want," he said. "Put it in the hands of the people who bought and paid for this fire district."

But Panozzo argued that fire commissioners were elected by taxpayers to make tough decisions. He poked fun at Kanner's push to have voters decide the issue.

"Deep down, when the hell has he ever cared about the people? It's a copout," Panozzo said.

Ferriero said Kanner's run for a seat on the County Commission has clouded his judgment on independence.

"Bob Kanner's no stance on this issue is a stance on this issue," said Ferriero. "I am convinced that Bob Kanner -- he has been a fire commissioner for eight years, it's in his blood -- he still wants to run the Spring Hill fire department from Brooksville."

Kanner, meanwhile, dismissed Ferriero's claim, saying: "When I become a county commissioner, I'm going to have enough problems and responsibilities getting on the board without worrying about the fire commission."

Political questions aside, Martin is skeptical that the timing is right to discuss independence.

"Right now, we've got a lot of unresolved issues in the fire department," he said, noting the district is without an assistant chief or a five-year plan and commissioners are still tackling a comprehensive update of policies and procedures. "What is going to be ignored or put off while we look into this?"

Martin said he is not convinced the matter is pressing.

"I haven't been contacted by any other outside interests indicating to me that this seems to be a high priority," he said. "It seems to me that the public has already spoken."

-- Jennifer Farrell covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to

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