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Fire board to look at assessment fees

September 4, 2013
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Richard Pringle, the attorney for the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District told commissioners last week that it is time to begin work and gathering information that it will need to get a question on the ballot next year asking voters to okay a new funding procedure to support the community's fire department.

New Fire Chief John Wayne noted several legal questions about changing funding from the present ad valorem way to an annual assessment fee or fees. Rep. Matthew Caldwell (R-Lehigh Acres) was instrumental in getting a bill passed in the legislature giving the people of Lehigh the authority to decide if they agree to the new funding measure that is used in many, if not most of the fire districts in the state.

Wayne noted that commissioners will have to decide, once voters have agreed to a new way to be taxed, that there are questions about the different types of parcels, including homes, undeveloped lots, industrial, etc., and how they should be assessed. He offered information in emails delving into different ways such funding can take place and asked them to give close study to the information he has sent out and to come back at another meeting for questions and possibly to make decisions.

Article Photos

John Wayne

The board plans different ways to educate and inform the public about the new way to tax the district for fire coverage. That includes pamphlets and fliers and talks to different organizations. It is the way the East County Water Control District (ECWCD) may collect funds to operate its agency.

The workshop held on Aug. 19 was at 4 p.m. and was open to the public at Station 104 on 16th Street, off of Sunshine Boulevard. Only a handful of firefighters attended the meeting and perhaps one or two private citizens were on hand.

Two firms - GSG and Burton Associates are two consulting firms, Wayne said, that can help commissioners decide how they will go about using assessment fees to support the fire district's operations, including the emergency medical personnel and ambulance transport.

Wayne said a fixed rate, meaning the same assessment fee on all properties, would be harder to explain to the voters while a variable fixed rate procedure could be another choice.

Commissioners may ask representatives from the two consulting firms that handle both types of collections, to a meeting and listen to their suggestions.

Attorney Pringle noted that commissioners must also decide if they want to the put the initial question on the ballot in the next voting cycle. He noted that the primary will be held next Aug. 26 and that it would not cost commissioners any money for the initial question to be put before voters. He said that by using the primary instead of a special election on the issues, thousands of dollars can be saved.

Then when commissioners decide which type of assessing properties it will use, it can go on the Nov. 4 ballot for funding the following year.

Chief Wayne noted that the second of the two SAFER grants from FEMA will continue to March of 2015. He said that prior to the grant running out, Lehigh would apply for another such grant to help fund Lehigh's fire district, the busiest in the county and one of the largest in the state.

When trying to plan the next budget meeting, some conflicts of meeting dates came up among members, so the chief said he would come up with alternatives and email them to the members so they could get back with him.

Workshops are always open to residents with public comment. But commissioners may not take any vote, but only discuss among themselves and their chief and attorney the topic for the workshop.

The regular meeting of the fire district began at 6 p.m. It is held on the last Tuesday evening of each month and is also a public meeting where those who attend can make public comment.

Chief Wayne recognized Brooke Ricairdi, an engineer paramedic, for her work each year collecting money and other items for the needy of Lehigh. At Christmas, she was able to come up with several donations which are given to Lehigh Community Services.

"You do a great job for our fire district and we appreciate all you do to help others," Wayne said

During a unanimous vote of the board, changes were accepted to allow the fire district to test for alcohol by collecting blood samples during "reasonable suspicion" and "follow-up testing."

Post-accident testing may also incorporate blood same testing. Per Workers Compensation rules (Florida Administrative Code 59-24-004), to test for alcohol a blood sample is required. Urine samples are not permitted for alcohol testing.

The revision to the policy clearly defines the appropriate procedures in collecting blood for alcohol testing. Previous drug testing with the blood testing element was approximately $45 per drug screen or test. The combination urine/blood test is estimated at $100.

The presentation to the board was made by Ken Bennett, assistant chief of administration who made the recommendations regarding the existing district drug free workplace policy.

The regular meeting lasted only an hour and a half with District Commissioner Larry Becker conducting the meeting. All five members of the district were present with Linda Carter arriving late.



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