The Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District made it official on Sept. 24 when it met and approved a $23.5 million budget for the upcoming year which began Oct. 1. The vote was four for passage and one against with Commissioners David Adams, Jackie Danis, Larry Becker and Linda Carter voting yes and Cathy Kruse voting no.
The fire board had also made it official to keep the ad valorem fee at 3.00 per $1,000 of evaluation for the upcoming year for its revenue tax on Lehigh properties, but during the meeting, they discussed plans to find an alternative way of collecting taxes through an assessment fee, much like what is being charged by the East County Water Control District.
Recent legislation in Tallahassee with the efforts of Rep. Matthew Caldwell now makes it possible for all fire districts to use the assessment fee process to fund their fire departments and in this case in Lehigh, also the emergency medical service which provides medics and ambulances in the community.
During the discussion of the final budget, Commissioner Cathy Kruse said it was a "bare-boned budget." Others on the panel said they would ask voters on the ballot to change the way that the fire department and district is operated. Due to poor economic times and thanks to a bailout twice by the federal government, the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District has continued to operate.
But if revenues are not risen, the department may be facing financial problems for sure, said Chief John Wayne at the meeting. It could mean the layoff of several firefighters after the last FEMA grant runs out.
The board voted to hire a consulting firm to begin a study and feasibility plan for a fire special assessment fee for Lehigh residents. Chosen was Government Services Group (GSG) to develop strategies, rates, and feasibility studies.
Jeff Rackley, the senior project manager, from the Tallahassee firm, was on hand and spoke briefly to the commission, saying his firm would come up with ways to bring attention to the assessment fee to the voters, offer help to the district to spread the word and educate the voters to the need of an assessment fee. He said his firm has worked in this regard for other fire districts in the state. The cost for the service will be a little more than $27,000 but all of the commissioners agreed that a professional organization such as GSG had a good name in helping fire districts such as Lehigh to come up with an alternative way of raising money to support its firefighters and emergency personnel.
The vote to choose GSG was unanimous by the commission. Funding for the hiring of the consulting firm has been included in the Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget for the fire special assessment fee feasibility study.
Meeting dates for the new fiscal year were also discussed and will remain on the last Tuesday of the month at Station 104 in the Conference Room at 3102 16th St. SW in Lehigh. That is just off Sunshine Blvd. As always, the meetings are open to the public and the public may make comments about ongoing business at the meetings.
One change noted was that the meetings would commence at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. as has been the case in the past. The next meeting will be Oct. 29 and dates may be changed in November and December due to the holidays.
It was also agreed upon that the department would adopt the policy to charge the same fees as the county does for emergency services, such as ambulance transport. Fire Chief John Wayne said all other departments in the county were adopting the same fees.
A special moment came at the meeting when Capt. Martin McDowell, who heads up EMS training for the district, said that he had received a letter from Dana DeMartino and the Sparks family offering "the upmost respect and a big heart felt thank you to the department for their professionalism and care and compassion that they received each time they needed emergency help over the past 12 years."
The latest being was on Aug. 28 at noon when Dana DeMartino's son-in-law collapsed at work and needed medical attention. It was thought to be from the heat and turned to be bleeding in the brain.
"Michael Picciano and Gary Kruse were on the ambulance. They got to him and treated him on site and quickly took him to Lehigh Regional hospital," DeMartino wrote.
She said that while in route to the hospital, Picciano was kidding Chris about having his wife's name tattooed on his arm they both are married to Jennifers. Chris said that really helped him start to relax and take his mind off the current events for a moment."
After a short time at LRMC, they were once again encountered by Michael Picciano and Gary Kruse when they came back to transport him to Lee Memorial Hospital due to his condition," DeMartino said.
She also said that the residents of Lehigh Acres are blessed to have a great department.
"You put your lives on the line every day for us without a thought, and we as one family are so glad that you are there for us," Dena DeMartino said.
The family attended the meeting and were thanked by the commissioners. Outside the meeting, the family posed for photographs with Michael Picciano and Gary Kruse, whose mother is a member of the board of commissioners.