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Hernando County to review motley fire services

The clerk of the court plans to hire a consultant to review the county's patchwork of paid and volunteer fire departments.

By ASJYLYN LODER
Published July 13, 2006


BROOKSVILLE -- Hernando County initiated an independent and far-reaching review of county fire services Wednesday morning.

Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai informed the County Commission that she plans to hire an outside consultant to look at the best way to fund and operate fire protection service.

The county now has a patchwork of paid and volunteer departments. In the past year, the commission has had to referee pitched political battles over higher fire fees, a consolidation of dispatch services and a possible takeover of High Point's embattled volunteer department.

An independent review can take some of the politics out of public safety, said Commission Chairwoman Diane Rowden. "It gives you credibility," she said. "It's not a political decision."

The county also needs a master plan for how fire services will protect a rapidly growing county, Nicolai said.

Three departments are staffed with paid employees in Hernando County: Hernando County Fire Rescue, Spring Hill Fire Rescue and the Brooksville Fire Department.

The county has two volunteer fire departments in Hernando Beach and High Point, a mobile home community north of State Road 50. Volunteers from Tri-County Volunteer Fire Department also offer support in portions of the northeast corner of the county.

The review will cover funding and dispatch issues, but its full scope has not yet been set, Nicolai said. The review has been under discussion for more than a year, but was prompted by several ongoing controversies:

* Spring Hill Fire Rescue has so far declined to join the county's other departments in consolidating dispatch services at the sheriff's new Emergency Operations Center.* Hernando County Fire Rescue has asked for a fee increase this year, setting the stage for a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday morning. Given the rising cost of labor and fuel, the department could find itself seeking additional increases in the coming years. Even with the increase, the department will remain unable to meet some national safety standards.* High Point Volunteer Fire Department, staffed largely by residents of the 55-and-older mobile home community, has faced repeated problems in obtaining the necessary certification for its volunteers. In the meantime, the county has been providing fire protection to the 1,600 homes, whose owners do not pay the $128 annual fee for that protection.

The scope of the review will be discussed Friday morning by the Audit Planning and Priority Committee. Since its inception eight years ago, the committee has conducted independent reviews of the Department of Public Works, fleet maintenance and the Utilities Department, Nicolai said.

The money is already in her budget for the review, Nicolai said. She has $50,000 from this year's budget and another $50,000 next year, although not all of that will necessarily be spent on the review.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.

[Last modified July 12, 2006, 23:36:05]


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