Impact fees won't cover new truck
By JENNIFER FARRELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001
SPRING HILL -- When the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District commissioners voted unanimously in January to buy a $52,000 truck to fight brush fires, they thought impact fees would cover the bill.
This week, the county's Legal Department told them they'd have to pay for the emergency purchase some other way.
In a letter sent Monday, Assistant County Attorney Bill Buztrey told the district's lawyer that the truck is not a legitimate use of impact fees, which must be spent on items related to growth.
Brush fires occur on vacant land, meaning growth had little to do with the district's decision to buy the truck, Buztrey reasoned.
"For the most part, it seems that the need for the brush truck is occasioned not by growth but rather drought, if there were not severe drought conditions, there would be no need for a brush truck," he wrote.
The letter sparked fireworks Wednesday night at the district commission meeting, where the board voted to use contingency funds to pay for the truck.
Commissioner Dennis Andrews blasted Chief Mike Morgan for telling board members that they could spend impact fees, which are charged to builders to pay for increased demand on services related to development.
"I think this makes the board look pretty stupid and foolish if we approved a purchase that cannot be made, based on the the advice of our top administrator," he said. "That question was explicitly asked to the chief . . . If I sat here and was bald-face lied to, somebody better be looking for a new job."
Morgan, who has been out of work recovering from a heart attack, was not at the meeting. Assistant Chief J.J. Morrison, who was filling in for Morgan, said he had chosen not to contact Morgan about the truck during his recovery. He said Morgan will return to work next week and urged the board to hold its fire until the chief has a chance to explain.
"I cannot tell you that Chief Morgan did not research this," Morrison said.
Morrison also said there is a chance that the administration can still convince county officials that the truck purchase is related to growth in the district. He mentioned "urban wild lands interface," a situation that occurs when residential developments are built near vacant land, and homes can be threatened by brush fires.
County Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said Thursday he didn't buy that argument.
"It sounds like a lot of firefighter jargon for, 'We need the truck.' "
Even though the truck was delivered last month and has been in service since it arrived, the purchase must still be approved by the County Commission, which oversees the district's finances.
Kingsley said he understands the need for the truck but sharply criticized the district's handling of the purchase.
"One day they make a motion to buy a brush truck; two days later they had it," he said. "I think we wouldn't have this problem if it had been procured in the correct manner . . . $50,000 as a non-budgetary item to go passing through and purchase on two days' notice is pretty unusual."
Especially because the Hernando County Fire Department fleet includes two brush trucks that are available for mutual aid, Kingsley said.
Buztrey said he signs off on the vast majority of budget amendments submitted by the district. "This is one of those that you don't," he said Thursday.
Buztrey said he would not rule out hearing more from the district, but he said he needs more convincing evidence to justify spending impact fees.
"I'm not saying they can't buy the truck," he said. "They can use other funds."
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