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Fire board to clear up assessment questions

Square footage on ballot deemed too confusing

June 4, 2014
Lehigh Acres Citizen

When the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District meets again on June 24, the board of commissioners will have to make a final decision for a resolution that will put the question of whether the people of Lehigh want to fund their fire department through a new assessment fee - with a dollar number attached to it.

If they want to get the question on the Nov. 4 ballot, they must decide by the end of June to finalize the way the question will be put on the ballot in no more than 75 words. Voters will vote yes or no.

At the April meeting, the board passed a resolution that included assessment fees based on square footage of homes in Lehigh and other square footage numbers for commercial dwelling space. Those figures were meant to be fair to all, Commissioner Larry Becker had said, but now Becker and the rest of the board have agreed that the language is not easy to understand and needs to be simple enough for everyone to know exactly what their assessment fees are without having to take a calculator to the voting booth with them.

Commissioners said they had received complaints about how to understand what "under roof" means and what are the exclusions.

Essentially, the question was doomed from the start, so commissioners last week decided to come up with a question everyone could understand. They have been battling with how to come up an assessment fee for the voters for months now.

The figure of around $292 per year will likely be on the ballot for all landowners with homes in Lehigh. The $21 per acres vacant lot remains unchanged, according to Chief John Wayne.

Commissioner Linda Carter argued that the many brush fires in Lehigh are often threats to nearby homes and she believed unimproved parcel owners should pay the same as others because of that threat.

Attorney Richard Pringle was asked by Commission Chairman Larry Becker to have language ready this week and have it emailed to the five members of the board for study.

The fire department, the largest in Lee County, is facing financial problems in two years if taxpayers do not pay more to support its operations. The reason is that during the recession, all of the homes in Lehigh lost value and in doing so, the property assessor was forced to lower the taxes on the properties. This tax, known as ad valorem taxes is based on the value of the property. Less money was coming into the department causing it to dip into its reserves. On two occasions, the federal government gave grants to keep firefighters on the job.

Commissioner Cindy Kruse said last week the same as she had said in the previous month that she wanted to see the "excellent" services from the department continue for the people of Lehigh.

Simply put, without enough money to fund the bared-boned budget of the department, it could be forced to close down stations and lay off firefighters.

If the new assessment fee question is approved by voters in November election, it won't take effect until 2016.

When the board meets at 5 p.m. June 24, it will go through legal proceedings of making an amendment to a previous amendment in order to undo the former and make the latter one official.

And that latter one will ask voters to approve an assessment fee of a certain dollar amount for everyone.

Even Chief John Wayne said the 17 cents per square foot for homes was an issue that people have problems understanding.

For instance, is an outside lanai or porch exempted from the "under roof" language"? What about a detached garage? Is it included in the total square feet of "under roof"?

Commissioner Linda Carter said her emails were all the same "The people of Lehigh don't understand the 17 cents per square foot and other percentage terms," she said.

Under the new expected language, some homeowners may have pay more and others many will pay less if compared to how the 17 cents per foot would have affected them.

However, the chief with his computer sitting in front of him, said he had every parcel of land in Lehigh that had been improved, and he could tell anyone what their assessment fees were under the 17 cents per square foot plan.

Few members of the public attended the meeting and all by one even asked a question when the public was asked for input.

The board has discussed plans to "educate" the voters of Lehigh before the Nov. 4 election. In such a campaign, they may speak to groups, but they not allowed by law to spend money in order to get the measure passed, which excludes paid advertising.

So Attorney Richard Pringle told the board it must pass a resolution for the new language this month. In so doing, he said an amendment would do away with the previous plan of using square footage as a way to decide who pays what in assessment fees.

You may keep up with the latest information by going online at: www.lehighfd.com/. That is the fire district's official website and notices of meetings, special meetings and minutes are posted. Also posted are the names of the commissioners and how they can be contacted for questions.

When and how district commissioners and the fire chief will "educate" the voters has not been decided. But to get to the voters of Lehigh, they must come up with a wide-range plan on how to get to them, possibly through attending club meetings, a town hall meeting, or other means.

But Pringle warned the board of the seriousness of the deadline for getting the question on the ballot. He said he conferred with Sharon Harrington, director of elections for the county.

Harrington, whose department prepares the ballot at the polls and the ones that are mailed out, said she had to have the language for the ballot by July 7.

The June 24 meeting is at the fire station at 3102 16th St. SW. That location is on the corner of Sunshine Blvd. and 16th St. SW.

Bills for taxes and assessment fees (another name for a tax) are sent out by the property assessor's office. Different taxes are listed on a form, including such things as the school district tax, the mosquito control tax and others. The assessment fee would also be included in the one bill which the county collects and passes Lehigh's taxes to the fire department. At the beginning of the last meeting, an annual audit was accepted by the board. Jeff Tuscan, is a partner with Tuscan & Company PA, a certified public accounting and consulting firm in Fort Myers. He gave a 40-minute review of the audit, answering questions from the board during the presentation.

 
 

 

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