After nearly 60 years of operation and tradition, the Zephyrhills Fire Department may soon be absorbed by Pasco County Fire Rescue.
As funding and staffing issues mount within the city’s fire department, the Zephyrhills City Council on July 1 unanimously directed city staff to begin formal negotiations to consolidate the local agency with Pasco County Fire Rescue.
If the merger occurs, Pasco County Fire Rescue would operate the city’s two fire stations and would absorb the city’s fire department personnel at their proper pay step, Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe said. The county would ensure and maintain additional staffing needs at both stations and place an ambulance within the city limits.
The merger is anticipated to be “revenue neutral,” meaning it would not cost either entity any money, Poe said. The county can operate at lower costs because of economies of scale, Poe explained.
The merger negotiations follow attempts by Zephyrhills leaders to find ways to address the fire department’s rising costs.
The fire department budget this year is $3.3 million — up nearly $900,000 from 2016, according to a city manager memo to the city council. Those costs are expected to rise over time.
One option would be to levy a fire fee assessment through annual property tax bills — affecting commercial and residential properties, and churches and nonprofits. But, Zephyrhills residents and business leaders vehemently opposed that idea during public comment .
“We have to look at what is the best for overall,” said Kevin Bahr, owner of Bahr’s Propane Gas & A/C in Zephyrhills. “I work for a few nonprofits, to sit there and say they’re going to pay…and we’re going to have every one of the churches in town (pay), I don’t think they have any earthly idea that they’re fixing to start paying a fire assessment fee.”
With a merger, Zephyrhills property owners would pay for county fire rescue services through a Municipal Service Taxing Unit, or MSTU. Generally, an MSTU for fire services would have less financial impact on city residents and commercial entities than a fire assessment fee, city officials say.
Bingham Realty president Will Bingham represents owners of about 250 residential multi-unit properties in Zephyrhills. He said a fire assessment would have a significant impact, and appears unreasonable. “You’re looking at rents going up.”
Sunlight Realty real estate agent Sam Turgeon also opposes the idea of a fire assessment fee.
“I don’t think that’s sustainable. It’s definitely not fair and it’s definitely unaffordable for the city,” Turgeon said.
He supports the proposed merger.
“You’re going to have more people able to go on more calls that are going to serve our community better,” he said. “We’ve heard repeatedly that this fire department is understaffed, which also means that it’s underfunded. Our community is growing rapidly and, because of that, our city does not have enough money to sustain the fire department in its current form. If we leave our fire department understaffed, that’s dangerous for our citizens and it’s dangerous for our firefighters.”
Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce director Melonie Monson also weighed in regarding the potential impact a fire assessment fee would have on the nearly 500 businesses she represents.
Monson warned the council: “There will be many that will not be able to take on the cost, so you may lose businesses with the fee. Think about how much it’s going to tax our businesses.”
The Zephyrhills Fire Department deferred public comment to firefighter union leader Travis Geiger.
Geiger pleaded the council to find a way to maintain the city’s fire department. He expressed concern about the loss of local control and predicted a difficult transition in merging the two departments because the positions are not equivalent.
“If you look at it from our perspective, we feel that we’re being pushed out. We’re not choosing to go over there,” Geiger said.
City manager Poe told council members: “If the decision is to keep the department, we have to charge a fire assessment fee, and we have to hire additional staff to meet the minimum safety standards. If we don’t do that, the only other option is to merge with Pasco County and do the very best that we can to make sure the (city fire department) employees that are transferring over are not adversely impacted.”
Zephyrhills city attorney Matthew Maggard concurred with Poe’s assessment.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see our fire department go away from an emotional or pride standpoint, but financially you have to look at it. We can’t sustain going forward, and I don’t think there’s any dispute with that,” Maggard said.
City Council member Lance Smith voiced concerns about the city fire department’s “long-term viability,” and added, “the logical conclusion is we’ve got to merge with the county.”
Zephyrhills Mayor Gene Whitfield agreed: “I think we have to look at sustainability.”
Councilwoman Jodi Wilkeson put it like this: “If it were only up to me, I would spend the money in a heartbeat. But, I’m representing all of these people who have reservations about the cost. None of them want to lose our firefighters. It is the question, ‘Can we afford it?’”
City Council member Alan Knight was the most vocal about trying to find a way to keep the department. One possibility would be to increase the millage rate, he said.
“Once we lose our fire department, we aren’t getting it back,” Knight said.
Published July 10, 2019