Members of the Lehigh Acres Fire Department are continuing to wrestle with the topic of assessment fees, how they should be applied and with what type of method to use. They met last week at a special meeting to discuss assessment fees and still could not come up with a way to fund the fire department and its emergency rescue service.
The discussions brought about 30 or more people to the meeting held at the East County Water Control District's large meeting room.
Fire Board Chairman Larry Becker said that he didn't believe it was possible for the board to come up with a decision in time to appear on the primary ballot in August and decided to work toward putting the referendum on the ballot in the November general election.
One thing for sure. If the fire department and the residents of Lehigh do not agree on some type of assessment fee to keep the fire department and emergency service in operation, there may be layoffs and at least two stations shut down.
If the board comes up with an assessment fee formula for taxing people and properties in Lehigh to support the fire department, it would not be implemented until 2016. If the voters say no to the assessment fee plan eventually approved by the board of commissioners, the ad valorem tax funding will continue at its fixed rate and Chief John Wayne has said the department can't operate into the future with less funding. Ad valorem tax rates have been lower because property values started dropping with the Great Recession began in 2007.
While there are reserves, Wayne said they will run out and that will mean the loss of firefighters, loss of time to get to a fire or to an emergency and in the end, landowners' taxes will go up, as they have already for many in Lehigh.
While the federal government through FEMA has come through twice before to provide funding to pay for firefighters, Wayne said the department would apply again for a third FEMA two-year grant.
Jeff Rackley, a senior project manager with CSG, a consulting firm out of Tallahassee, presented a brief plan showing how assessment fees could be charged including residential, commercial and agricultural or undeveloped land. This was a second presentation by CSG which gave a presentation last month.
In this latest proposal by Rackley, assessments were shown based on square feet.
Most homes in Lehigh would be billed in the neighborhood of $266 annually and that included those with square feet of from one to 2,979 square feet. Those with larger homes from 2980 to 5958 square feet would pay as much as $632 annually in an assessment fee. Last week, Rackley presented a plan that would have cost most homeowners more - $292 annually.
However, attorney Richard Pringle reminded the group that this latest plan had not been tested in court and could not predict whether it would stand up to the rules and regulations by the state.
Chief Wayne noted that the community and the fire department need to decide what type of service they want and are willing to pay for.
A cut in funding of the department's $14 million budget could bring havoc to Lehigh, Wayne said. He said it was all about community demands, response times, the number of units needed and the number of personnel needed and public safety.
Commissioner Cathy Kruse said the community must decide what type of service "they want for the community."
Wayne noted that equipment, including fire trucks, are old and the department is unable to purchase new equipment.
The discussion among the commissioners centered around how much a landowner, those who have improved properties and those who have empty lots should pay. Commissioner Carter said she didn't believe the public should subsidize land holders who don't live here. She continued to push for equal treatment for all and called again, as she did in the last meeting on assessments, that all lots should share the same responsibility that every person and landowner pay the same rates.
It was noted that vacant lots are scattered throughout Lehigh and some of the residents who attended said their homes were surrounded by wooded areas and that if a fire was to start on one of those unimproved lots, it would threaten their homes.
A flat rate for all was suggested by CSG, but Rackley said it had not been court tested.
It was noted at the meeting that if personnel had to be cut and stations had to be closed because not enough revenue was being generated, it would cause ISO ratings, which insurance companies base their premiums on, to affect everyone in Lehigh.
Commission President Larry Becker said he was pushing for some type of tier system so all people could be treated fairly.
"Our lives are in jeopardy as how we fund this department," he said.
He went on to say that he was puzzled and needed more time to think about how assessments could be levied in Lehigh.
Ed McHale, a resident of Lehigh, told commissioners he would be happy to meet with them and conduct a cost beneficial analysis. He said his background could aid the department. Becker invited McHale to meet with him and Chief Wayne. He told McHale that due to the sunshine laws in Florida, only one commissioner could meet with the chief and a member of the public. Becker could then bring back the information to the board in an open public session.
Mohamad Yasin, a member of the Community Council of Lehigh Acres, told commissioners that he believed "all of us should pay equally. We must try it. It should be a fair share across the board."
Commissioner David Adams told the group he was fed up with: "all the rules in Tallahassee," in regards to what type of methodology the fire department should use in determining an assessment fee.
"We can't decide this tonight. We need more information and that is why we need to put off a referendum of the voters until November, said chairman Becker.
He asked CSG representative Rackley to provide more information on assessing homes, including all categories such as residential, commercial and vacant land.
The next meeting of the fire board is on March 25 at 5 p.m. and it will be held in the large meeting room of the East County Water Control District.