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Assessment fee closer to ballot

March 5, 2014
By MEL TOADVINE ( , Lehigh Acres Citizen

The way Lehigh Acres residents, owners of vacant properties, those who own commercial properties and other organizations will pay for fire and emergency medical service inched closer to an assessment fee type of funding at a meeting Feb. 25 at the East County Water Control District.

The next meeting is March 10 at 5 p.m. at the ECWCD. This is a special meeting and has been scheduled by the fire district's legal counsel. The public is always invited to regular and special meetings.

Between 35 and 40 people turned out for the Feb. 25 meeting, according to Ken Bennett, the assistant fire chief and fire marshal of the fire district. The site for the fire board's monthly meeting had been changed to the ECWCD to make room for more visitors.

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Chief John Wayne spent several minutes explaining to some in the public of a special meeting last week that the facts used for likely assessment fee funding for the fire department “were facts.” He spoke passionately in his response to at least one critic in an audience of 35 to 40 people.

The five-member board had asked Camille Tharpe and Jeff Rackley, representatives of GSG (Government Services Group from Tallahassee last month to do a study and make recommendations for a way for assessment fees to work using what the council called an Historic Demand Methodology.

Tharpe is senior vice president of GSG and Rackley, who made a PowerPoint presentation, is the senior project manager for GSG.

CSG's presentation lasted about a half hour and those who came to the meeting could follow through with a copy of the presentation while it was projected on the wall.

According to Jeff Rackley, a Historical Demand Methodology study in this type methodology is the driving factor. It is based on calls for service from different types of properties and has been court tested and approved as a way to use an assessment fee type of funding.

Rackley said it was the most widely adopted way throughout Florida for funding special districts such as the Lehigh Fire Control and Rescue District.

First off, the group, including the board of commissioners, the staff and public were told that a fire assessment is a charge imposed against real property to pay for services provided by the local government and that services include such things as fire suppression, hazmat response, fire prevention, emergency response and disaster preparedness and safety education.

In the past it has not general included - EMS-type calls above first responder, but Rackley noted that Senate Bill 1410 has expanded the ability of special fire control districts to levy special assessments for emergency medical services, such as those provided by the Lehigh Fire District with its ambulances for transport.

Rackley said a fire assessment is not a tax but they are similar. Both generate revenue to pay or services and facilities. Both are mandatory and can be collected on the tax bill annually.

He pointed out during the presentation that assessments must benefit property; and taxes need not. Authorization for special assessments comes from the home rule powers of the government; taxes must be provided by general law.

Governments may develop the rate of assessments and the manner of apportioning costs; taxes must be prescribed by the legislature.

Rackley said the case law for assessment fees requirements must provide special benefits to property of which the fire department does. And an assessment fee must be fair and reasonable, logically and factually driven method must be developed to spread the costs among the benefited properties.

Using current budgets for paying for fire protection and for services offered by EMS personnel, GSG came up with what amounts to a $14.570,198 total assessable budget. The total comes from fire services of $12,337,998 and EMS services of $2,232,200.

The figures used are not to represent in any way what an assessment fee would be if the voters decide this is how they want to fund their fire department.

Using such a Historical Demand for Fire Services, GSG was able to go through figures for fiscal Year 2012-13 for fire services offering the percentage of calls for residential, commercial, industrial/ warehouse, institutional, and agricultural/vacant land. They also used an EMS Assessable Budget that gave costs and revenue received for ambulance transport.

GSG in this scenario projected a residential rate of $292 a year, which is about $14 a month.

Different formulas were used for commercial, industrial/warehouse and institutional and covering the cost of fire on agricultural and vacant land.

While there was some objection to the outcome of the study and the costs to taxpayers through the assessment method, they were reminded that while the cost may look large, they should consider it with what they were paying through ad valorem taxes before the Great Recession, when property values dropped and so did funding for the district. Taxes were lowered when property values went down.

An argument was made again by Fire Commissioner Linda Carter who said she believed every property owner should be treated equally, noting that owners of vacant properties should be charged the same rates and local residents with homes on their lots.

Cathy Kruze, another member of the board, wanted to make sure ambulance support and EMS was included in the assessment fees because that type of service is "a huge benefit" to Lehigh residents.

After Carter's calls for equal charges to all properties and their owners in Lehigh, the audience sounded a loud applause. Others on the board were not as committed to that way of collecting an assessment fee, leaning more toward the methodology used by GSG, which would call for assessment fees for different types of properties. President Larry Decker said he would like to see a way for people of less means pay less in assessment fees.

Not everyone was happy with the figures, people such as Mohamad Yasin, a Lehigh teacher and activist, who questioned the fire department's numbers.

Fire Chief John Wayne spent several minutes standing and citing facts as to the cost to run the Lehigh Fire and Rescue District. After each response from Wayne, he would say, "That's a fact."

He offered for anyone to contact him and he would listen and show the books to anyone in the public - including the payroll of firefighters and the expenses of the department.

He said that the fire department has $10 million in reserves but is using it up. If there had not been federal FEMA grants twice to save firefighters' job, the department would not be able to offer the services it does. He also said the fire district would apply for a third FEMA grant and he hopes it would be granted for a third time. If not, layoffs would follow and fire stations would have to shut down.

He urged everyone in the community to work together with the fire department if they want to save the present demands for service.

Frank LaRosa, of Lehigh, told commissioners he liked the way they had become more aggressive in trying to solve the financial problems due to the recession.

At one point, Chief John Wayne, who responded passionately to attacks, said of assessments: "This is nothing more than simple match. If you want to maintain the same level of service, we have to go to an alternative method of funding.

"It's easy to hide behind a computer screen and call out numbers. I have the information. It is available to the public."

The chief said there was a lot of propaganda being heard about the fire department's finances, but he said he had the facts.

"I have to back up information given you and what I tell you is a fact. We are running on a bare bones budget. If you can tell us a better way, then show me how to do it," he said.

Some emotions were shown when Wayne answered questions to attacks. Especially when one of the people he was looking at began laughing.

The board must make a decision in time for a new method of using assessments to fund the department so be put on the Primary Ballot for August. Voters will be asked if they will support an assessment type of funding the fire district. If it is approved, the board, the chief, and the staff and public input from the citizens would decide what the assessment fees would be. They would not become collectible until 2016.

The meeting ended when resident Steve Conti said the community had the best fire department in the county. But he said he wasn't sure he understood all the information that was given and he didn't think most of the people who had attended had either.

Tharpe and Rackley of GSG will come back March 10 with another scenario using what is called the "tier system," calling for different costs to different type of properties. The board noted that it did not want the cost to be a hardship of those with lower incomes and properties that are in a low price range, which includes many homes in Lehigh.

Carter, who voted against accepting the CSG methodology, said that she still believes everyone in Lehigh, all owners of properties should be treated the same way and be assessed the same way.

"It's the only fair way. Then we are not subsidizing those out-of-towners who own property here and are not paying their fair share," he said.

Commission Attorney Richard Pringle cautioned that commissioners would have to have "language" 120 days before an April deadline for the August primary.

"You have to give the elections supervisor time to get this done, too," he said.



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