Fire district in voters' hands

Published April 18, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - The Spring Hill Fire Rescue District board got its wish Tuesday - to remain intact until the residents of Spring Hill vote on its fate.

Hernando County commissioners voted 3-2 against taking over the district, after more than five hours of deliberation and comment from fire district officials and Spring Hill residents.

The decision also came as county and fire district attorneys simultaneously argued over a temporary injunction granted to the fire district Monday.

Rather than take control of the fire district and eliminate the fire board with a majority vote, as first proposed by Commissioner Dave Russell two weeks ago, commissioners decided to pursue a referendum, as the fire board previously requested.

And, in a twist, the firefighters said they are taking steps to break away from the county altogether and instead answer to state authorities.

"We're not going to stop until we see independence," said Troy Hagar, president of Local 2794. "As long as we're not independent, then what happened today will happen again and again. It's the only way to get out from under that cloud."

While it looked like Russell had the support of Commissioners Chris Kingsley and Rose Rocco heading into the meeting, Rocco instead went with what she said the people wanted.

"I think the intention of this ordinance is honorable," Rocco said. "But I think this is something we should look at and give people a choice."

Kingsley was the only other board member to support Russell. After the vote Tuesday, both Russell and Kingsley said they were disappointed with the outcome. The commission will begin discussing the referendum in the coming weeks.

"It's tough to lose on an issue that you're so passionate about," Russell said. "But this is democracy in action. I accept the outcome and look forward to putting it to the voters of Spring Hill."

"This is what we've asked for," said fire board attorney Andy Salzman. "It's what we believe is the proper thing to do. It's up to the people of Spring Hill."

The decision was met with a loud burst of cheers from passionate supporters inside and outside the commission meeting room at the Brooksville government center.

Earlier in the day, firefighters circled the building with signs and matching T-shirts that read, "Stop the county takeover of Spring Hill."

More than 60 people took a number from a dispenser outside commission chambers for a chance to speak. A majority of those who talked asked for the commission to let Spring Hill residents vote on the matter.

"It's the people's district, let the people decide," said former county Commissioner Tony Mosca Jr. "You're fixing something that's not broken."

Citing the long-contentious relationship between the county and fire board, Russell proposed the ordinance April 4, a day after calling for the county's legal staff to review the history and legal standing of the fire district.

The proposal called for the county to take control of the fire district, which eventually would have been merged with Hernando County Fire Rescue.

The measure also left Spring Hill Fire's current taxing district in place, while money collected from Spring Hill residents would have continued to be used to provide Spring Hill residents with the same type of fire and rescue services.

Tuesday's final outcome didn't arrive without roadblocks for both the commission and fire district.

A short-lived 9 a.m. hearing left fire district attorneys scrambling around the courthouse to get Hernando Circuit Judge John Booth to reinstate the temporary injunction he granted to the fire district Monday.

At the hearing, Booth agreed with Hernando attorney Jon Jouben, who said that the court couldn't hear the matter because the complaint wasn't properly served with a summons to the county last Friday.

After quickly getting the correct paperwork, the fire district lawyers served the County Commission with the complaint during the meeting.

Then Salzman, fire district attorney Ron Freeman and union attorney Paul Donnelly went to the judge's chambers upstairs on the fourth floor of the courthouse, waiting for him to return in case the commission went ahead and supported the ordinance.

But when commissioners voted against the takeover, they dropped the issue.

Fire district Chief J.J. Morrison and union leader Hagar said they were more than pleased with the outcome. Morrison said he plans on meeting with County Administrator Gary Kuhl and other county officials to work out any concerns the county may still have with the way the fire district is run.

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