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Politics

Fire dispatchers fight merger

Spring Hill Fire Rescue commissioners vote not to merge dispatchers with the county's, but the county says that's not an option.

By CHANDRA BROADWATER
Published September 15, 2006


SPRING HILL - They won't go down without a fight - one that Spring Hill Fire Rescue commissioners are willing to take to court.

Despite grim statements from fire district attorney Andy Salzman, the fire board voted unanimously Wednesday night not to merge the district's 10 dispatchers with county 911 dispatchers in the new county Emergency Operations Center.

The decision came at the close of a packed meeting that lasted more than three hours.

The next step remained unclear. County commissioners were expected to address the fire district's decision during Thursday night's budget hearing.

Last week, commissioners threatened to pull the district's communications budget, leaving it with far less than the $531,000 needed to keep dispatch operations up and running.

For now, it appears that the fire board's decision will force Hernando County Fire Rescue to pay $424,000 to train and pay staff for the new EOC. And while the training was under way, the county fire district would have to continue to reimburse Spring Hill Fire Rescue for dispatching services.

If Spring Hill agreed to merge with the sheriff's dispatching unit, eliminating duplicated services, each would have picked up roughly half the $496,000 the Sheriff's Office expects to spend on emergency calls during the coming budget year.

That amount includes the sheriff's own calls, plus those for Hernando County Fire Rescue, which announced earlier this year that it would terminate its dispatching contract with Spring Hill Fire Rescue and join with the sheriff once the EOC opens. Spring Hill dispatchers would have filled 10 positions for which the county has budgeted.

Fire Commissioner Charles Raborn made Wednesday's motion against the merger, and read from a prepared statement.

"We're charged by the people of Spring Hill to keep dispatch under the control of Spring Hill, and keep it under the high standards they expect," Raborn said. "Out of respect to you, Sheriff Nugent, I regretfully have to make this motion."

Nugent attended the meeting with Bill Kicklighter, county director of information services. Both were on hand to explain the consolidation proposal and answer questions.

Before the vote, Salzman, the fire board attorney, said that the fire district didn't have much leeway as a county-dependent fire district because the County Commission controls the fire district's budget.

"You're not independent," Salzman said. "Ultimately, this is an issue of public safety, and you must do what's best, and there are a lot of gray issues. But you're a dependent district."

Raborn said that the fire commission barely seemed to have any power at all. He said the district was "set up" last year when it allowed the county to pass an ordinance giving it the power to examine the Spring Hill Fire Rescue budget, as it does for other county departments.

"Duh," replied someone in the audience.

Fire commissioners spent most of Wednesday night's meeting listening to Nugent discuss the 3-year-old consolidation plan. Next, they fielded comments from district employees and residents before taking their 4-0 vote.

Fire Commissioner George Biro was not present. He was on vacation.

Nugent assured the fire district that nothing would be done to compromise the current level of dispatch services in the county.

The goal for everyone is to run a first-class operation with satisfied employees, he said.

The sheriff, who is a Spring Hill resident, also said he would be open to waiving a probation requirement for Spring Hill Fire Rescue dispatchers, who currently have a higher salary than county dispatchers. A proposed salary freeze could also be discussed further, he added.

While the preliminary agreement included no job losses, Spring Hill dispatchers would have their current rate of pay frozen until the sheriff's dispatchers caught up. They would also face having to pay more for family health insurance coverage.

"Either way, whatever you decide is of no consequence to me," Nugent said. "It's nothing personal, but I know it is for the employees."

Spring Hill dispatch supervisor Kim Anderson said that she would not be able to absorb what she sees as a pay cut. As a single parent, she said, she works nights and attends college classes during the day.

"I won't be able to go to college," she said. "There's a lot bigger picture here."

Other employees said they were concerned about job security under the sheriff and that fire commissioners should not go down without a fight.

Spring Hill resident Stu Keith told the fire commissioners to keep the dispatching operation as is. He questioned how one group of elected officials could tell another how to do their jobs.

"They look at us as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Keith said. "As an elected board, you have an obligation to stand up for the rights of Spring Hill."

Fire Commissioner Leo Jacobs said he didn't want to see anything done without a legal opinion in writing from the state. He said he has been studying state statutes regarding special districts such as Spring Hill Fire Rescue and believes the county is exerting more power than it has.

"All I want people to do is what they're elected to do," Jacobs said. "They can't change the district because it belongs to the people of Spring Hill."

County Attorney Garth Coller said the county indeed does have that power since Spring Hill Fire Rescue is a dependent district. The fire board's disapproval of the consolidation would most likely have to be dealt with in court, he said.

Depending on what county commissioners decide, Nugent said Thursday that he anticipated beginning to make plans to hire outside dispatchers.

"We're going to be looking for experienced fire dispatchers, and salary commensurate with experience," he said. "I'm sure we'll be very competitive and attract qualified candidates."

Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

[Last modified September 15, 2006, 06:48:38]


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