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Reprimanded, chief keeps job

Hernando County Commissioners decide against a suspension after an improperly acquired firetruck causes them to shift funds.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


SPRING HILL -- Spring Hill Fire Rescue Chief Mike Morgan kept his job and avoided suspension Thursday night when the five-member district commission met to discipline him for recommending wrongly that the board buy a $50,500 brush truck with impact fees.

At an emergency meeting, commissioners voted unanimously to formally reprimand Morgan for being careless in his duties but decided not to suspend him for a week without pay as suggested by Commission Chairman Bob Kanner.

After the hourlong meeting, Morgan said the decision was "a fair outcome for all concerned."

Morgan, who returned to work Monday after suffering a heart attack last month, came under fire last week when Hernando County's Legal Department rejected the district's request to pay for the truck with impact fees, saying the need for the truck was caused by drought, not growth.

By that time, though, the truck had already been delivered, forcing commissioners to shift money from contingency funds to cover the bill. The purchase must still be approved by county commissioners, who are set to discuss the matter at their next meeting on Tuesday.

Before the vote to reprimand him, Morgan told commissioners he wanted to keep his job and said he never meant to mislead them. He added that the problem would likely have been caught had he not been out on sick leave and unable to follow through on the truck purchase.

Morgan acknowledged his administrative skills have room for improvement and told the board he wants to finish his career in Spring Hill.

"I can do better," he said. "I can dot my i's and cross my t's better."

The formal reprimand is Morgan's first since he came to the district in June 1995.

As for the impact fee issue, the chief held his ground, saying he believes the truck is a legitimate use of impact fees, despite the county's ruling.

He argued that development around vacant land places homes in danger during brush fires. He added that the truck, which is one of only two four-wheel drive vehicles owned by the district, will also be used for other kinds of emergencies, during hurricanes, for instance.

Meanwhile, in 1999, Hernando County approved using impact fees to buy a brush truck for what was then the Northwest Fire Department. Assistant County Attorney Bill Buztrey, who approved the 1999 purchase but turned down the recent request from Spring Hill, said he had some reservations about the previous decision. Since then, the courts have become more conservative in their interpretation of what can be purchased with impact fees, he said.

At the meeting, Morgan said he tried to explain his reasoning to the board during a meeting in January, but was interrupted by Commissioner Dennis Andrews.

"I still feel I'm right," he said, adding later: "There was no intent on my part to buy a brush truck that we couldn't pay for."

Morgan also responded to a remark made by Andrews at the board's last meeting, when the chief was on leave.

"I resent the comments that were made in the paper that I lied," he said. "I don't lie to you intentionally or try to mislead you."

At last week's meeting, Andrews blasted 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.

"If I sat here and was baldface lied to, somebody better be looking for a new job," Andrews said then. On Thursday, Andrews acknowledged making the comment, but emphasized it was conditional.

"I did say, "if,' " Andrews told Morgan. "I did not say you lied. I said if we were lied to."

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