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Monday, Jun 18, 2018
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Brooksville council undecided about hiring county fire service for city

BROOKSVILLE — The city’s cost-cutting exploration continued Monday night with another lengthy workshop by the Brooksville City Council, this time on the future of the city’s fire department.

Before them was a proposal they requested from the county, which served as the opening salvo in potential negotiations for a county takeover of the city’s fire operations.

Hours later, after discussions with top Hernando officials and city staff, a stack of competing calculations, a tangle of acronyms and a touch of exasperation, the council settled on talking more.

Even that wasn’t easy to decide, with council members Robert Battista and Bill Kemerer saying they didn’t like the county’s proposal and wanted to keep city fire operations. They would cut costs and explore ways to provide a higher standard of medical services than the basic life support the city provides.

Mayor Betty Erhard and council members Joe Bernardini and Natalie Kahler wanted to keep talks open with the county, especially since the clock is ticking toward budget preparation season. And the council hasn’t decided whether to contract with Sheriff Al Nienhuis to take over law enforcement from the Brooksville Police Department.

City council members vowed last year to pursue cost reductions. They spent months going through each city department’s budget after learning that former city manager Jennene Norman-Vacha spent more in previous years than the city made in revenue.

The council has agreed to negotiate a county sheriff takeover, but several council members have withheld final approval until they see the details.

Fire services are an even more complex issue for Brooksville.

The city and county both house firefighters at the Brooksville Fire Department. City residents pay the city for fire service; they pay the county for emergency medical services and ambulance transport. City fire services include basic life support services; county firefighters provide fire response and advanced life support.

Sometimes county fire units provide all fire service when city resources are not adequate for a particular emergency.

The city and county use different methods to pay for their services, a mix of flat fees and property taxes. Finding a way to compare one department to the other has been a challenge.

County officials said they can save the city money on fire and rescue services, but Kemerer said he found little savings for the city.

Kemerer suggested that instead, the city save money on fire service by changing the pension plan for future department personnel to the state’s retirement system. He also said the county’s method of assessing for fire service worked better than the city’s.

Bernardini was displeased with the county proposal, noting that it said nothing about saving city firefighter jobs or paying for the city’s equipment and building.

County administrator Len Sossamon said the pitch was just "a starting point."

"This is an offer,’’ he said.

Another complication is that the city has no permanent fire chief. The city fired chief David Freda in October after he was arrested on a charge of organized fraud over $50,000, based on his actions as chief of the now-defunct Hernando Beach volunteer fire department.

Another former Hernando Beach chief, David Murdock, is suspended with pay from the Brooksville department. Murdock faces a lesser organized fraud charge.

The department recently lost more than half a dozen firefighters, mostly to the county. City officials have been filling those empty spots.

The city’s interim chief, Stan Mettinger, provided the City Council a batch of memos and details about the city’s fire operation. Among them was a list of cost-cutting suggestions. One would save about $182,000 by not filling three fire department positions coming available through attrition.

Mettinger wants the city to provide advanced life support medics to care for Brooksville residents. Several council members agreed, but did not talk about how to pay for the more expensive service.

The council is expected to talk more about the issues next month after City Manager Mark Kutney gets answers to council member questions.

One is how much the city might pay the county for fire responses inside the city limits.

Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

>>>Previous coverage:> Council moves toward disbanding Brooksville Police Department>>

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