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County, fire district need to settle dispute

Published March 8, 2007


In a scenario that is all too familiar to residents, another war of wills is being waged between the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District and the Hernando County Commission.

As usual, the core issue is about authority, and just how much the County Commission is entitled - or willing - to exercise over the dependent fire district. But this time around, the fire district is using the firefighters union to make its point.

The union's representatives, the fire chief and the fire commission's attorney walked out of a bargaining session last week because county Human Resources director Barbara Dupre wished to participate. The chief and the lawyer, both representing the fire commission, said they had no business being there if the county was approving the contract. And the union officers said they wouldn't continue without knowing who had the final authority to approve their contract. Interestingly, three of the five fire commissioners showed up to watch the histrionic exit, which may have been agreed on the night before in an executive session that was closed to the public.

No one can blame representatives of the firefighters' union for wanting to know if they are negotiating exclusively with the fire commission, as they always have, or the County Commission, which has assumed a more active role in overseeing the fire district.

But the way this showdown is shaping up, it may be a while before the union reps get an answer to that question.

County attorneys insist Dupre has a seat at the bargaining table. That authority is laid out in a 2005 amendment to the law that created the fire district 33 years ago, and it is reasonably straightforward. It says one of the oversight responsibilities the County Commission has assumed from the fire district is human resources, and that involvement "shall include, but not be limited to advertising open positions, candidate screening, coordination of hiring, benefits coordination, maintenance of personnel records, and any and all other functions that the county human resources department performs for other county departments."

Clearly, the human resources department is immersed in every one of those personnel matters for other county departments. Just as clearly, the fire district is no more and no less than a county department in that regard.

Moreover, Dupre says the fire district has readily agreed to her department's participation in all other matters relating to personnel. Only now that she wishes to oversee the union agreement has the fire district questioned her involvement.

Unless an agreement can be concluded at a meeting between fire district and county officials this morning, this matter may be headed for court. Looking even further into the future, this debate could be the forerunner of yet another quest by the fire commission and union to place a referendum on the ballot asking voters to grant the district independence from county oversight. Spring Hill voters have rejected similar measures twice.

However, if the recent past is any indication of how this dispute resolves itself, the fire commission has the edge.

Last summer the fire district stood its ground as Sheriff Richard Nugent tried to merge Spring Hill's emergency dispatch operations with his. The County Commission lacked the political will to use its authority to force that move, even though it would have saved taxpayers more than $400,000 at a time when cutting the budget allegedly was a top priority. The County Commission yielded to the fire district's demand and the dispatchers stayed put.

This time, the fire district has drawn a line in the sand that is wider than the last.

It appears the law is on the county's side, but it may require filing a lawsuit to prove it. Will the County Commission cross the line and stand up for itself, or continue to let the fire district kick sand in its face?

Like the firefighters union, all residents of the county deserve to know who is in charge.

[Last modified March 7, 2007, 22:12:23]

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