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Fire service money needn't become hot election topic

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 4, 2002

So, what's your hot-button issue for the campaign season?

Potholes?

Crowded recreation space?

For this discussion, we will limit the agenda to the County Commission because it is the most local of local governments to the vast majority of Pasco's populace. Commissioners must guide basic government services to more than 300,000 people, or nearly 90 percent of the county residents, living outside the six cities.

Water?

Growth?

Getting an appointment to see County Administrator John Gallagher?

Some issues cross jurisdictional lines. Prescription drug-buying programs are under the feds and Tallahassee. Educations falls primarily to the Legislature and the Pasco School Board. And everyone is responsible for environmental protection.

Roads and sidewalks?

Economic development?

Land preservation?

Don't forget the perennial favorites.

Taxes? Is that on everyone's list or just the boisterous?

Good government? Shouldn't that be everyone's agenda?

Now, how many of you had provider of fire protection service in east Pasco near the top of the list?

Me, neither.

It is an issue of little consequence to most of Pasco County, including the heavily populated (translation: where the votes are) west side. Yet, some east Pasco pols including Dade City Commissioner Hutch Brock and Mayor Scott Black, who talked about it publicly, want to turn it into a campaign issue in the County Commission races. There are two, incidentally. Democrats Steve Simon and former Commissioner David "Hap" Clark Jr. in a Sept. 10 open primary and the November contest between two-term Republican incumbent Pat Mulieri and youth sports advocate Amye Cox, a Land O'Lakes Democrat.

So, with just a little more than five weeks left in the Simon-Clark sprint -- probably not the best way to describe a race involving a onetime distance runner and a near octogenarian -- it would seem an opportune time to make it an issue if you're going to do so. Discussions, though, have been behind the scenes.

"Nobody's contacted me," said Simon.

At a Municipal Association of Pasco meeting Thursday evening, the issued was mentioned just in passing. Odd, since Mulieri was sitting there and would have been a captive audience. Mulieri said afterward she was willing to listen to the cities' concerns and plans a driving tour with a Zephyrhills fire lieutenant.

This is not a new issue, by the way. The cities of Zephyrhills and Dade City provide fire protection to areas outside their municipal boundaries under a contract with Pasco County. In June 1999, the commission told the two cities it planned to terminate the contracts and assume fire protection beginning in 2003. Sitting on the commission were Mulieri, Simon and Clark.

Since then the county adopted a master plan for emergency services and expanded its municipal taxing district as it assumed areas formerly covered by San Antonio volunteers. It is building a station in Meadow Pointe and last week acquired land along Centennial Boulevard -- halfway between Dade City and Zephyrhills -- for construction of yet another station. It is negotiating to staff the department at the Traveler's Rest mobile home park, will move its Chancey Road station to the intersection of State Road 54 and Eiland Boulevard west of Zephyrhills, and move a truck stationed in Dade City to U.S. 301 north of the city. All this is aimed at providing coverage to the east Pasco region.

The cities are reluctant to part with the municipal districts for monetary reasons. The county pays the two cities nearly $900,000 annually for coverage, though Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson estimates the county could provide the service for about $500,000 annually. The cities argue that the property tax rate in some of the municipal districts will rise after the county takes over.

But, pocketbook concerns for people who can't vote for you is not the driving concern for the cities. The pocketbooks of their own residents is the cities' priority. Without the county subsidies, the cities face the prospect of reducing personnel or raising their own property tax rates.

The takeover is inevitable, but some people seem to have missed the message. Hence the calculation that it would be an opportunistic campaign issue.

Steve Spina, Zephyrhills city manager, has a different approach.

"How many times do you have to be told they're taking it over?" said Spina. "We need to redirect our focus on what we're going to do ourselves after they do."

If more people shared that sense of realism, there might be one less campaign issue for the 2002 election.

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