Voters in Lehigh will have an opportunity finally in the Nov. 4 general election to decide if they want to give authority to the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue Board to charge an assessment fee, rather than an ad-valorem tax to support the fire service.
With a vote of 4-1, commissioners passed a resolution asking voters to pay annual fees of $292 per household for protection.
The resolution also calls for 35 cents per square foot for commercial dwellings, 6 cents for industrial and warehouses, 52 cents per spare foot for institutional and 21 cents per acres for unimproved land.
Chief John Wayne and his board of commissioners have less than 16 weeks to get the word out so voters understand what their vote means.
Richard Pringle, the board's attorney, said members must pass or reject the way taxes will be raised by the meeting held on June 24. Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harrington needed the wording for the ballot and the wording was limited to 75 words.
The change in the way the fire department will finance itself will hopefully keep it afloat, said Larry Becker, chairman of the board. All agreed with him, except Commissioner Linda Carter who didn't think it was fair. When she made the statement, a few of the 20 people in the audience clapped.
During the meeting when visitors could comment about the assessment fee, before it was made official, nobody asked to speak.
As the meeting came to an end, some visitors were given the opportunity to speak. Becker, the chief and board attorney offered answers. Of those who attended, many were firefighters. A few members of the public attended.
The fire department is operating on a barebones budget and thanks to concessions over the past few years from the firefighters, the picture would be different. Also, thanks to two federal SAFER grants from FEMA, the fire department has been able to keep from laying off firefighters.
But that is still a possibility even if voters recognize the need to raise more money to keep the department at current levels of service, that some firefighters could be laid off because if the assessment fee passes, it won't take effect until the 2015-16 year. In the meantime, the department is dipping into reserves and the time may come when labor, the highest cost to any organization, may have to be cut - that is if a third Safer grant is not provided by FEMA. Such a grant pays the salaries of firefighters for a year.
Chief John Wayne says he is not optimistic that a third Safer grant will come to Lehigh.
The department has not received enough tax revenue through property taxes when the economy soured and people's home and property values plummeted.
That in turn caused the tax assessor to evaluate homes at a much lesser cost in value and that in turn brought real estate taxes to all-time low in recent years.
In response to why she voted against using assessment fees, Carter said she thought it was not fair to the community and that working people would be subsidizing those people on fixed incomes who according to her, will have to stop taking their medications and spend less at the grocery store.
"We had to spend $250,000 on brush fires just this year on the backs of our citizens. I can't support it. I don't want a vacant lot put my house in danger of catching on fire," she said.
Becker noted that the board can always make changes in another ballot if the current plan doesn't work, but he also said it had to be within the law. He noted that the fire department can't survive as it does today without adequate funding, and that includes, considering all the cost cutting devices, the concessions from the unions, and the fact that the fire equipment is getting old.
The ambulance used in Lehigh has a quarter million miles on it, according to Wayne.
A few days later, voters in the Bay Shore Fire District defeated assessment fees for supporting their department. But the fee was well over $500 a year, almost double what Lehigh's assessment fees will be if voters vote yes.
In the meantime, the board made it officials that for the next fiscal year, that the tax rate remain at 3 mills, which will likely not provide enough money to keep services as they are now. If voters approve the assessment fee, the money would not be available until the following fiscal year.
The board decided on budget talks for the public, which will be published online at the website: www.lehighfd.com/.
One of the more interesting parts of the meeting last week was the fact that Fire Chief John Wayne answered questions from anyone who wanted to understand the assessment fee plan or the budget. He held a wealth of information concerning insurance costs, what will happen if the assessment fee plan is rejected, and more.
He has even offered for anyone who wants to ask him questions or to make an appointment to examine the budget, he will set up appointments with those people. To contact the chief, call 239-303-5300.
Commissioners Cathy Kruse and Jackie Janis both said they wanted Lehigh to have "the same level of excellent service" that it has now. They noted that if the assessment fee is defeated, there will be loss of service, the laying off of firefighters, and the closing of firehouses.
And all that will affect a homeowners' insurance coverage, according to Fire Chief John Wayne.
He said if the department is forced to lay off firefighters and shut down two or three fire stations, there will be large banners across the front of the building of whom to call for help.
It was Chief's Wayne birthday and he received happy birthday wises from the commissioners and others on the staff.
But his mind was on the financial affairs of the department. He noted that if the fire assessment fees are voted down, the fire ambulance support service in Lehigh would disappear and has already talked to county emergency officials about such a possibility. That can mean shorter response times, he said.
He noted that with less money to operate the fire department, fewer firefighters will do all they can to protect people's homes, but the response times would not be as fast as they are now. And he said he has talked to other fire departments in the county and their members are impacted because outside fire service will be forced to come to Lehigh which could leave some areas without enough protection in their own communities.
For almost an hour before the meeting adjourned, Fire Chief John Wayne answered dozens of questions with straight forward answers. He said he would make himself available to anyone who wanted to know more about the action taken by the board.
He reminded folks that information is available on the fire department's Internet site.
Now come plans for the board and the fire chief to also meet with groups in Lehigh to explain the proposed assessment fee schedule. Attorney Pringle told the board members they can't waste time and they need to come up with a plan now to address the voters of Lehigh at different venues.
Many in the small group that attended said they were upset about overgrown in the woods near their homes and Commissioner Carter said she thought code enforcement should be brought in by the county and require land owners to clean up their unimproved lots. She said she would contact the Lee County Council about making changes in the laws to require people to keep their wooded lots empty of overgrowth which when dry can cause fire to spread like wildfire.