Members of the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District will vote on how to administer assessment fees at their next meeting on Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. at the East County Water Control District's large meeting room at 601 E. County Lane. The meeting is being moved from the usual place, the fire station at Sunshine and 16th Street, due to the likelihood of a large crowd and the public's interest in what type of assessment fees they will be asked to support on the primary ballot.
During preliminary discussions on Feb. 10 at a special meeting, Commissioner Linda Carter said everyone who owns property in the district should be billed or assessed equally.
"Everyone should share in the cost on an equal basis," Carter said.
Commissioner Jackie Danis said she disagreed with Carter and suggested that the district should assess people's properties based on acres and unit size. I believe this is fair and I disagree with Commissioner Carter."
Commissioner David Adams said he hoped the assessment issue didn't become an emotional one, that all the fact should be gathered before the commissioners vote on assessment fees.
The meeting room was packed and Fire Marshal Ken Bennett said if anyone else had showed up at the meeting, he would have had to direct them to another room because of fire code rules of occupancy. The crowd was huge and many people stood during the meeting.
Fire Board Chairman Larry Becker told CSG consultants there are small homes with 900 square feet of space and there are much larger ones in Lehigh and there is a difference in the income of many people in Lehigh and that should be taken into consideration on how people pay assessments.
Commissioner Cathy Kruze said they have not done a good job "educating our people," about what is going on in the department. She said the department is going through growing pains and that the department performs a high level of service in Lehigh.
"Ad Valorem is a roller coaster way of raising money. If my family's budget was run that way, it would be difficult," she said.
Last week, Camille P. Tharpe and Jeff Rackley, of GSG (Government Services Group) from Tallahassee, were on hand to talk about various ways of coming up with an assessment fee to support the Lehigh Fire Department which won't have the money to operate in two years, due to the lack of funding from ad valorem taxes over the past few years which have plummeted.
In order to meet a $14 million a year budget, money is being taken out of reserves and eventually they would run out of funding if the way of financially supporting the department is not changed.
The fire board voted to ask GSG to come back to the Feb. 25 meeting with more information and a recommendation on how the district's land owners, homeowners and commercial businesses should be assessed.
It was noted at the meeting when some in the packed audience asked if the current ad valorem fees would continue along with assessments. They were told that Lehigh residents would not be dual taxed, that the ad valorem way to raise money to support the fire department and EMS would end if voters approved an assessment fee type of funding.
If an assessment fee type of raising taxes to fund the department's operations is defeated at the ballot box, then ad valorem would continue and Chief John Wayne said it would cause layoffs of personnel, less report time to incidents and the closure of stations.
He also noted that if that were to happen, residents' insurance fees would raise significantly. The reason would be that the department could not perform the same type of operation as it has in the present and years past.
CSG will make a recommendation for assessments and a discussion with commissioners has to be held along with public questions and input, before the measure can go on the ballot for referendum and if passed becomes law. If that happens, assessment fees would not begin until 2016.
"Everyone should make an educated decision and give us time to get the facts out to the people and they should come to our next meeting," Kruze said.
Chairman Becker said that he felt the board had not done a good job in getting the information out to the people.
The board also voted last week to hire special counsel if needed. The board voted 4 to 1 with Carter voting no.
Carter again said she believed everyone should be taxed the same way, that it be fair for everyone, including vacant plots, homes and businesses. In the past, churches and other non-profits have not been charged. That is something that should re-examined, Carter said.
But Becker said he believed a tier system should be considered to be fair to the people of Lehigh.
Rackley who is the senior project manager for GSG and Tharpe, who is a senior vice president, who were at the meeting said they would come back with methodologies that they believed board members were looking for.
Becker urged everyone in the audience to come to the next meeting and tell their friends and neighbors to attend, too.