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Bill in the works would allow fees to fund fire department

March 6, 2013
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Attorney Richard Pringle, who represents the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue Board, told commissioners that a bill is being prepared by State Representatives Matthew Caldwell and State Rep. Garrett Richter and others to be introduced in the Florida Legislature that would allow fire districts to level an assessment fee that would not only cover operations of the department, but also help fund emergency services such as ambulance calls.

The regularly scheduled meeting was held Tuesday night, Feb. 26 at the fire station on 16th Street and Sunshine Boulevard. The board meets the last Tuesday of each month in the conference room of the fire station. The public is always invited to the open meetings and make their feelings known during special times when the public is asked to speak or make a comment.

Pringle said that the bill to allow the funding change would "abandon ad valorem taxes and use assessment fees" to fund fire districts. Gov. Scott has asked the Legislature to look into all special districts in the state - some 1600 of them - and the way they are being funded. The governor has said that the way funding now occurs goes back several years in to what he has called "pioneer days."

Article Photos

Jeff Tuscan

Pringle said there would be a referendum for the voters to decide whether or not to amend the bill to change the way special districts such as the local fire department can gather revenue to operate.

For the past five years, revenue has fallen in the department because property values in Lehigh have plunged and ad valorem taxes are not enough to operate the department which has had to depend on the federal government for two grants to hire firefighters and to dip into its saving funds for operations.

Also at the meeting, a final approval was given to Mary Ellen Dorsett, a consultant from the Iona Fire Dept., who is helping the Lehigh fire district to prepare a strategic plan for the department and to begin advertising for a new fire chief.

The commissioners gave approval to move forward with Commissioner David Adams saying the board shouldn't pay more than $3,000 for the cost "to get it done."

"I vote yes and I don't want us to spend more than $3,000," he said.

Dorsett, who was at the meeting, said it was smart to be moving along with a strategic plan, which was recommended last month by Commission Chairman Larry Becker.

Dorset said that along with the writing of the strategic plan, it would provide information to any applicant who wants to apply for the chief's position. Former Chief Don Adams retired two months ago and the fire board named John R. Wayne as its interim fire chief.

While he has assumed all responsibilities of the position, he has also indicated that he will apply for the chief's job. Members of the board said at the meeting they had heard good things in the department under the leadership of Wayne

"Everything I hear is that he is doing a good job," said Commissioner Jackie Danis.

Dorsett said the application process for the hiring of a new chief and the wording of the new strategic plan are going to move together in a parallel direction.

The board and Dorsett have come up with wording for an ad to put in two firemen's publications in Florida. They compiled the ad at a workshop prior to last week's meeting. If they are not able to select applicants from the state, advertising will go nationwide.

Commission Chairman Becker said that applicants would be able to go online and see the specifications and also be able to view workings of the department.

Hopefully, with 45 days or so, there will be a list of screened applicants for the board to consider and begin interviewing.

Dorsett will get the applications and screen them and pass them on to the board.

Interim Chief John Wayne swore in five new firefighters at the beginning of the meeting. He brought back a tradition that he said he thougt was good for the department. It has been several years since new firefighters have been sworn in before the public. Following the brief ceremony, the board asked family members, friends and visitors to enjoy cookies and drinks that were being provided for the ceremony.

The new firefighters/EMTs are Adam Johnson, Travis Jolliff, Adam Younger and Nicholas Classetti.

In other action, an independent auditor's report, which is mandated by law, was given by Jeff Tuscan of Tuscan & Company, P.A. in Fort Myers.

In the 50-minute presentation, Tuscan noted that the fire district find options to improve and accelerate ambulance billing procedures. Tuscan said in the report that Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District was not found to have any deficiencies in internal control. It can be seen at the fire department and a link to it may be put up online for the public.

The department voted to not to collect $2,340 in fees from the Lehigh Spring Festival Committee for services the department will render onsite at the annual event. In past years, the department has waived such costs. The festival begins March 15 and continues for nine days at Veterans Park.

The board also agreed to continue an agreement with Genesis Global Technologies for the department's computer and Internet services. Assistant Chief of Administration Ken Bennett has been working with officials of Genesis Global Technologies for the last few months.

The meeting, which began at 6 p.m. ended three hours later, one of the longer meetings over the last several months.

Commissioner Chairman Larry Becker said he would like to see the agendas shortened in the future and less time for meetings.

A presentation was given to the commissioners - and those attending - showing recent demolition work of several houses in Lehigh where Goodwill Industries plans to erect a new store.

Commissioner Linda Carter said firefighters were able to use the property as a training site and urged others in Lehigh who have plans to demolish buildings to let the fire department know so maybe firefighters can use the demolition and the empty buildings as practice sessions for its personnel.

"Our firefighters really found the training to be excellent and we hope we can do this again in the near future to other sites that are going to be torn down," Carter said.

The next meeting will be March 26 at 6 p.m. at the fire station on 16th St. and Sunshine Blvd.



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