One of the most important meetings ever concerning the future financing of the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District is scheduled for Feb. 10 at 6 p.m. at the fire station on Sunshine and 16th Street. The entire future or eventual demise of the Lehigh Fire Dept. and the ambulance transport service depends on information provided at the meeting and how it is received by residents of Lehigh.
The date was selected last week during a regularly scheduled meeting of the Lehigh Fire District.
Chairman Larry Becker urged residents to show up at the meeting to hear the results of a consultants' study about future funding of the department.
Presently the fire department is funded through ad valorem taxes, but because of plummeting tax revenue, the board has asked that the law be changed on the way Lehigh residents fund their fire department.
And that would be an annual assessment fee paid by all owners of properties and real estate in Lehigh.
The five-members of the fire board have each talked separately with the consulting panel (GSG, Government Services Group) in Tallahassee. Due to sunshine laws, members each met separately with the group, addressed its questions and explained the problems the Lehigh Fire Department is having.
A second local meeting in Lehigh will be held on Feb. 25 at the regularly scheduled monthly fire board meeting and at that time, the five members of the board will likely vote to ask voters to fund the department with the annual fee.
The public will have the right to question the consultants at the first meeting and also make comments at the second meeting, too.
If an assessment fee is voted for by the board, then the question must be put to referendum to the voters for the 2016 election.
Fire Chief John Wayne noted that if the fire department is funded through assessment fees, then the ad valorem tax revenue tax collecting system would end.
What an assessment fee for Lehigh's fire district would be, Wayne was unable to say, not until the consultants offer their findings and suggestions.
Wayne noted that two SAFER grants from FEMA have kept the fire department in operation but is not too sure a third grant would be handed down although it will be applied for, he said.
A few years ago, due to the lack of funding revenue because of less ad valorem tax, the former chief was forced to lay off 34 firefighters and about half of the administrative staff. A SAFER grant was awarded and the department was able to rehire those laid off; however, half of the staff, about seven or eight, have not been rehired, Wayne said.
Calls for service, both firefighting and ambulance support have increased drastically over the last few years.
At the time of the layoffs, the department had run 7,694 calls in 2009. Today, t hose calls have increased to 10,198 for 2013, a 33 percent hike in service, Wayne said.
He also noted that the department needs to replace some of the administration staff because of the increased work load. Also old equipment must be replaced.
The board made the original request in October to GSG with a cost to the department of $27,500. That report will be presented to the public and the board at the special meeting on Feb. 10.
The consulting group may come up with different assessment fees options for the types of properties in Lehigh, those with homes or businesses on them and for the 91,613 vacant lots with no buildings on them.
Wayne noted that without future funding, and without another SAFER grant, the department would be forced to lay off as many as half of the firefighters and maybe forced to close down stations.
Top put the funding problems in simple terms, Wayne says it takes $14.5 million to operate the fire service and ambulance service a year. Ad Valorem taxes for the past year brought in $7.4 million.
"We have $10 million in reserves and we have to dip into them to keep operating and in two years, we will have depleted them without an increase in funding and the department will go broke," Wayne said.
Wayne and Chairman Becker, along with other board members, say they will have to do all they can to speak to all the people of Lehigh that they can be done through clubs and organizations and maybe churches. Becker said community leaders could also help in making presentations throughout the community so that when the public goes to vote, they will understand how important it is to vote for assessment fees.
The recession, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, has caused the financial woes and Wayne noted that if an assessment fee is not approved by the voters, Lehigh homeowners would see a significant increase in their fire insurance rates.
"That's a huge, huge part of the picture," Wayne said. "Insurance companies will increase their bills if there is less fire protection to home and landowners."