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Spring Hill Fire Spending up $1million

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  • Spring Hill Fire Spending up $1million

    Fire spending up $1-million
    A fire commissioner criticizes the budget, which includes money for three new firefighters.
    By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 27, 2003


    SPRING HILL - Fire Chief J.J. Morrison has been doing his department's budget for nine years.

    So when first-year fire Commissioner Darryl Hamilton challenged it as being heavy on spending, the attack hit close to home.

    "I take that personally," Morrison said.

    Despite Hamilton's argument that the fire district must spend less, the rest of the fire commissioners praised Morrison Wednesday night and approved his $9.1-million budget, million-dollar spending increase and all.

    The highlight of the budget, which takes effect in October, is the addition of three more firefighters. Their arrival will allow a second fire station to have five firefighters on duty at all times. Only one other Spring Hill station now has five. The rest have four.

    Since budget preparations began, Hamilton has groaned about spending. But his concerns boiled over Wednesday night when he and Morrison engaged in a public debate on the budget. Hamilton went so far as to propose a 2 percent budget cut. He got no support.

    Specifically, Hamilton said he was alarmed by the 11 percent increase in the district's salaries, overtime and other payroll costs. At that rate, he said, personnel costs will double in nine years.

    "To me, it almost seems like Alice in Wonderland," he said.

    Morrison and the three other fire commissioners looked at Hamilton as if he were speaking a foreign language.

    They reminded him that salaries must increase this year by 5.5-percent - terms in the firefighter's contract negotiated three years ago.

    They objected to Hamilton quoting the 11 percent increase figure without mentioning the addition of the new firefighters, whose salaries alone add $100,000 to the budget. Both Morrison and the firefighters consider five-person crews vital to firefighter safety.

    And Morrison pointed out that increases in longevity pay, financial incentives for veteran employees who stay with the district, are a good sign that skilled people are sticking with the district.

    "There is no fluff here," Morrison said.

    Still, Hamilton proposed to trim $179,000 from Morrison's payroll. He said the district isn't likely to need its entire payroll budget because of vacancies that crop up during the year. Instead of support, he found criticism.

    Commission Chairman Jeffrey Hollander said Hamilton's figures were not accurate and that his cuts would leave the district unable to meet its payroll and protect the community. "Maybe they do that in these big corporations like Enron," Hollander said.

    Commissioner Gene Panozzo said it was absurd to propose a 3 percent payroll increase when the district is contractually bound to 5.5 percent pay raises.

    "You criticize," Panozzo said, "but you cannot explain how to improve it."

    Still, there is general agreement that employee benefits are draining the budget.

    Worker's compensation insurance costs are going up 48 percent, a $143,000 increase. Insurance costs are going up 33 percent, adding $300,000, although half is due to an error in last year's budget that left the health insurance budget underfunded by $150,000.

    But these are precisely the costs that have Hamilton worried.

    He says the district needs a long-term plan to save money for a fifth fire station it will need in the future. He would have devoted his budget cut savings to that purpose.

    Hamilton said Spring Hill can't sustain 12 percent growth over the long haul. Instead of such high spending levels, he suggests the district put some money back.

    Morrison's budget adds $365,000 to the district's reserve fund, pushing it to $1.4-million, or 16 percent of the budget. About $1-million of that will be needed to carry the district through the last quarter of 2003 - the period before tax revenues start rolling in.

    But, unlike Hamilton, Morrison believes there is no end in sight to Spring Hill's growth potential. He is comfortable with his budget.

    "We are a recession-proof community because of the stable incomes in our community. We are blessed," Morrison said. "Are we going to have enough money? I'm betting my job on it."

    - Robert King covers Spring Hill and can be reached at 848-1432. Send e-mail to [email protected]
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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