With less than 100 days before the Nov. 4 election, members of the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue board of commissioners have asked Chief John Wayne to hire a marketing firm to help the department get information out to the public about the proposed fire assessment fee which will be on the ballot.
Wayne said there was a lot of misinformation in the community about the assessment fee and that his office is open to anyone who has questions. He said he would explain the fee and what that individual's fee would be if the voters pass the measure on the ballot in the fall.
Some of that misinformation, Wayne said, is about which properties in Lehigh would be exempt if the assessment fee passes. The chief said a lot of people representing those places that have been exempt from the present ad valorem taxes - which are based on property values - are being told that they will not be exempt. The chief blamed a blog site on the Internet where he said information is not accurate and is confusing to those who read it. It is not sponsored by the fire district.
Fire Chief John Wayne
Richard Pringle, the board's attorney, said the board under the law could discuss future exemptions, but could not pass any types of resolutions saying what they would be, not until the measure has passed in November.
The board discussed exemptions and the general consensus that those receiving exemptions from ad valorem taxes that are presently being collected, should stay the same. This would include churches and some governmental entities.
The ad valorem tax would be phased out if voters approve the assessment fee that will be on the November ballot. But if passed, the fee would not go into effect until the 2015-16 budget fiscal year.
Commissioners are currently working on the budget for the 2014-15 now and fees to support it will come from ad valorem taxes. That tax has been set at 3 mills, meaning $3 per hundred dollars work of property evaluation. A 4 p.m. budget workshop was held prior to last week's July 29 meeting.
Since the economy suffered in the recession and property values fell, so did the amount of tax revenue to operate the Lehigh Acres Fire Dept. The department also operates a transport ambulance program and those firefighters who drive the ambulances are all certified EMTs.
Over the past few years, the federal government has awarded the Lehigh Fire District two Safer grants, which has been used to pay the salaries of firefighters that the department could no longer keep due to the lack of income from ad valorem taxes. At one point, some firefighters were laid off and rehired once the Safer grant was received.
Chief John Wayne last week said the department has applied for a third Safer grand from FEMA and he had received word that the application had been accepted. Wayne said he hoped the department would receive a third Safer grand or layoffs of firefighters would occur.
He also has said in the past that without more funding such as an assessment fee, two fire stations would have to shut down and the ambulance operation would be passed over to Lee County's ambulance program.
The fire district in June proposed the following non-ad valorem assessment rates for fire protection and emergency rescue services, facilities, and programs:
Residential property = $292 (flat rate) per improved residential parcel
Commercial property = 35 cents per square foot per improved commercial parcel.
Industrial/ Warehouse property = 6 cents per square foot per improved industrial/ warehouse parcel.
Institutional property = 52 per square foot per improved institutional parcel
Unimproved land = $21 per acre (or portion thereof) minimum one acre and maximum of 10 acres.
According to a Lehigh Fire and Rescue website, the estimated net revenue generated from the proposed assessment will be approximately $13,428,352.00. The district needs approximately $15 million per year to sustain the same level of coverage/service it provides today. The difference will be accomplished through its ambulance transport fees that have been budgeted at approximately $1.5 million per year.
Over the past few years, the firefighters have taken no salary hikes and have offered other concessions.
Commission Chairman Larry Becker said at last week's meeting that it is time for the fire district to inform the people with truthful information so that everyone who votes will understand the issue when they go to the polls.
But he admitted that the board did not have the skills for marketing, although he said speakers should be talking to every organization and Lehigh voters.
"This is the biggest thing that has happened in the history of this fire district," Chief Wayne said. "It is important for everyone to understand the proposed assessment fees."
Those interested in keeping up with the assessment fee are encouraged to visit the fire district's website at: www.lehighfd.com/fire-fee-assessment. It can also be googled by typing in Lehigh Ares Fla. Fire and Rescue District, which will direct you to their site.
Members of the board asked Wayne what he thought it may cost to hire a marketing firm to help the department "educate" the public about the fire assessment fee. Wayne said he did not know, but he did not think it would be expensive.
The board took a vote on whether or not to hire a publicity firm and the vote was three to 2 with the minority voting no because of possible high costs. Voting no was Commissioner David Adams and Linda Carter. Commissioners Jackie Danis, Cathy Kruse, and Chairman Decker voted yes.
"Chief Wayne is the person we hired to operate this department. We should give him the authority to talk to public relation firms and make a right decision," Becker said.
Becker also added, due to the confusion caused by a blog sight and rumors in Lehigh, that "some people are making games out of this. It is not a game."
One thing the department and the commissioners say they want to make sure everyone understands is that their assessment fee would replace the fire taxes already paid by the residents. It is not in addition to what they are paying now The amount they would pay in the future could be greater or less than what they are paying today. They will only be paying or saving the difference between the two fees.
Also, the district will not be charging a property tax (the ad valorem tax) in addition to the assessment.
The next meeting is August 26 at 5 p.m. at the fire station on 16th St. and Sunshine Blvd. The public is always urged to attend and ask questions and make comments during the meetings.