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Township 22 fire decision was a good call by commissioners

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By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

The Hernando County Commission made an unpopular decision last week when a majority of its members voted to wrest control of the Township 22 Fire District from the city of Brooksville.

But it was the right move. Not only were the misshapen Township 22 boundaries outdated, the county has vowed it can provide better service for less money. That should be reason enough to persuade doubters that the vote was sensible and in the best interests of affected residents.

Despite the speculation of Brooksville council members and firefighters, and the shallow opportunism of candidates whose agenda is to discredit the incumbents, there is no evidence that the county will not be able to provide adequate service to Township 22 residents.

To the contrary, county Fire Chief Mike Nickerson has promised he can provide more people, equipment and improved response times to residents without increasing fees. County Administrator Richard Radacky and the commissioners should make sure Nickerson knows he's staking his reputation -- and theirs -- on that promise. If he does not come through, it will cost them credibility and probably his job.

Did the commissioners tackle the Township 22 issue to help ease their budget woes? Absolutely. They truly needed the approximately $300,000 Township 22 property owners will pay to help them balance their budget and if they had not they would have delayed this decision until next year.

But their motive of convenience doesn't supersede the needed outcome. In fact, Township 22 should have been taken over by the county last year when a commission-appointed task force of residents recommended that action.

Brooksville has served Township 22 residents for 34 years. In 1968, the county's population was clustered around the city. Spring Hill was just a glimmer in the eyes the Mackel brothers, who transformed Spring Hill from sand and critters into houses and asphalt. There was no fire department other than Brooksville that could serve residents outside the city limits.

Of course, all that has changed. The county has built more fire stations, and more are on the way, and the equipment and level of training is at least equal, if not better, than Brooksville can afford.

The county has already taken over the East Hernando and the Northwest fire districts. Absorbing Township 22 is just one more logical step toward consolidating the county's fire services, with the exception of Spring Hill, where most residents gladly pay more for their emergency services.

One day, the county will do the same to the volunteer departments in High Point and Hernando Beach. The county's growth, changing demographics and the dwindling number of volunteer firefighters make those changes inevitable.

Brooksville council members and the county commissioners are scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. Monday in the commission chambers to finalize a hard-earned agreement about which entity will provide utility services outside the city limits. Some members of the Brooksville council are expected to use the outcome of the Township 22 vote to sabotage that effort.

It's easy to understand the council members' concerns, because losing Township 22 leaves them with a $330,000 hole in their fire department budget. But scrapping the utility deal would be a huge mistake. One issue has nothing to do with the other, and the only thing that links them is the animosity between some city and county officials.

County commissioners are frequently accused of not having the will to oppose groups of residents who pack the commission chamber demanding one action or another. When the commissioners cave in -- and we've seen it happen time after time -- they are accused of pandering to voters instead of basing their decision on facts, law and what they believe is in the best interest of the majority of their constituents.

Tuesday's vote to take over Township 22 was not one of those times. Instead, it was a sign of resolve, accountability and political maturity.

We may elect our commissioners in popularity contests. But once they're in office, the best ones quickly learn that their responsibility as public servants sometimes leads them away from the path of least resistance.

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