Rep. Matthew Caldwell of Lehigh Acres, told members of the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue Board of Commissioners that he would take up their concerns for a bill that would help to fund what is a financially strapped fire agency due to the Great Recession. While there is still several million dollars in the coffers, board members are likely to see that disappear if more revenue is not brought in to operate the fire department.
The department also operates an ambulance service in Lehigh and transports patients to Lehigh Regional Medical Center and other hospitals in the county.
At a meeting on Dec. 18, Caldwell was asked by the board to look into putting language in a bill to consider assessment fees for all of Lehigh properties. Already landowners pay a small tax bill based on the value of their property.
Due to the recession over the past five years, revenues have dropped because area residents' homes and properties have lost value and their taxes have gone down. Many homes are what has been called "under water." It takes the tax money of Lehigh residents to operate the fire department. It receives no county funding.
The board before the present new board of commissioners had discussed the possibility of an assessment fee for the past two years. But it always fell on deaf ears, but many on the previous board felt that the only way the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District will survive is if those homes and properties that it protects, produces more revenues. The population of Lehigh, according to the Census, is close to 90,000 residents.
Caldwell may consider a bill that would provide funds for the fire department and the ambulance service since bills that cannot be collected from the public have to be written off, again losing needed revenue to operate the agency.
Caldwell will get back to the board after he has met with legislators, which will discuss the matter and make a decision of sponsoring such a bill that could also change Lehigh fire coverage boundaries.
Although details were not mapped out, the bill could appear on the next ballot in 2014 asking Lehigh landowners if they would support some sort of assessment, which could amount to a one-time fee of $50, for instance, or more.
Some on the previous fire board members discussed an assessment fee of $100 per year on landowners. Without such an assessment fee in addition to low tax revenues, Kevin Shea, a former member who died last year, said he thought the department could become insolvent despite two SAFER grants from FEMA.
Board members are not sure they would be eligible to receive a third SAFER grant. The two federal grants that pay the salaries of several of the firefighters were obtained by former Fire Chief Don Adams, who resigned two months ago.
At last month's meeting, then Battalion Chief John Wayne was appointed interim chief of the fire district. Wayne said he wanted to be considered for the job and members of the fire district board on Dec. 18 decided to review the job description and gather input from a consultant and also other department personnel as to a decision to post the chief's position in an advertisement.
A committee of the staff would be formed to discuss the responsibilities of the chief.
Since Don Adams's resignation on Nov. 2, the department had been operated by both then Battalion Chief John Wayne and Assistant Chief and Fire Marshal Kenneth Bennett, who said he was not interested in the top job. At the November meeting, the board unanimously appointed John Wayne as interim chief. He was to earn more than $130,000, about 10 percent more than he had been making. Don Adams was making more than $130,000 a year.
At the second meeting of the new board this month, a motion was made to move forward in reviewing a job description and dealing with a consultant. The vote was 4-1 with Commissioner Jackie Danis casting the lone no vote. Other members of the 2012-2013 board include in addition to Danis, Chairman and President Larry Becker, Cathy Kruse, David Adams, and Linda Carter.
If the position is posted, Interim Chief John Wayne said he would apply for it.
Meanwhile, Lt. Dale Pinheiro, who was terminated from his position as a firefighter, returned to work last week. At the time of his firing, it was reported that it was for misconduct last February. He has been receiving jobless benefits while he sought another job over the past several months.
But recent arbitration resolved the issue, saying that Pinheiro should have been suspended rather than being fired.
Pinheiro is expected to be paid for the 10 months he was away from the department.
The Dec. 18 meeting at the fire station on 16th Street and Sunshine Blvd. was poorly attended, according to Interim Chief John Wayne. In the past several months, the meeting room has been packed. The next meeting will be at 6 p.m. on the last Tuesday night of January and the public is urged to attend.