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Fire board passes special assessments increase

September 1, 2017
By MELISSA BILL and TIFFANY REPECKI (news@breezenewspapers.com, trepecki@breeznewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

Despite public outcry, the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District's Board of Fire Commissioners approved a 4.1 percent hike to the district's special assessments.

Before a large turnout of residents Aug. 29 at the fire board's final rate resolution meeting, Commissioner Cathy Kruse stated that there had been some confusion surrounding the fee.

"This is not a new tax or a rate added to last year. It's also not a bill," she said.

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Cathy Kruse

Richard Pringle, the district's attorney, explained that Lehigh voters had approved the assessments on the November 2014 ballot by a vote of 51 percent.

The fees were initiated to support the fire district, which had suffered revenue losses due to a drop in property taxes. In September, the board passed the requirement, enabling the district to levy the fees.

"This is just the first year the district has considered an increase in the rates," he said.

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With the rate increase, the assessments will cost $248.80 per residential dwelling for fire protection services, plus $55.17 per dwelling for emergency rescue services - a total of $303.97 per home.

That is up from $292 - $239 for fire protection and $53 for emergency rescue services.

For both services, commercial properties will now be charged 36 cents total, industrial warehouse properties charged 6 cents total and institutional properties charged 54 cents total - per square foot.

The new fire protection assessment for land will be $21.86 per acres, with a maximum of 10 acres.

With the increases, the district is estimating about $15.17 million in revenue will be collected during the new fiscal year, which runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, 2018. The total includes an estimated $12,843,856 in revenue from the fire protection assessment and $2,323,720 from the emergency rescue assessment.

Many residents spoke out during public comment, as well as asked questions. Several in attendance felt that they had been misled and uninformed prior to voting for the fees when they were put on the ballot.

Michael Cook, assistant district manager for the Lehigh Acres Municipal Services Improvement District, addressed the special assessments on behalf of his organization.

"While we are opposed to the fee, we are willing to work out an amicable solution with the district," he said.

Marie Murray, president of the Pinewood Condominium Association, spoke for her neighbors.

"Our compliant is more about how the fee is being assessed," she said. "Our condos are only 800 square feet, yet we are paying the same fee as those who have a 1,600-square-foot home. That means we are paying double."

Murray asked the district to reconsider the way it assesses the fees. She added that many of the condominium's residents cannot afford the increase.

Some on the Lehigh Acres Community Council also voiced disapproval of proposed hike.

"I object to this assessment," Robert Saul, treasurer for the council, said. "I do appreciate what the EMT does, but they also receive money from the insurance companies for emergency transportation of residents."

Saul also asked those in attendance to sign a petition that would place the special assessments on next year's election ballot for reconsideration and repeal.

Council Vice President Mohamed Yasin agreed.

"Folks, if you want to get rid of the assessment, let's put it back on the ballot and vote," he said.

At the meeting, Kruse asked Fire Chief Robert Dilallo to take a few minutes to go over 13 letters the board has received opposing the increase, which included the LA-MSID and Pinewood Condominiums.

Prior to the vote, Pringle reviewed the resolution and the board's requirements.

"The district must send a notice out that they are considering raising the rate, which you have done," he said. "The other stipulation is that the board invite the public's input during a public hearing."

Commissioner Linda Carter reminded residents that it is not the 1950s.

"People expect to see an increase in their taxes, pay more for gas and get an increase in their salary," she said. "This increase allows us to provide the citizens of Lehigh with the best service."

Commissioner Debra Cunningham acknowledged that she was initially against an increase in the assessments until she became informed on how they were calculated.

"I encourage the public to come to our meetings and let us know your concerns," she said.

Dilallo also took a few minutes to speak.

"I will personally take the time to sit down with each and every one of you to explain how they determined these rates," he said.

Cunningham made a motion to accept the resolution as it stood, which was carried out by Carter and Kruse. The vote to increase the district's special assessments by 4.1 percent passed in a 3-0 vote.

One seat remains vacant following the death of Commissioner Matt Smith, while Commissioner Robert Anderson has been suspended by the governor pending resolution of criminal charges against him.

The Lehigh Acres fire board will meet again Sept. 26 at Fire Station 104, at 3102 16th St. S.W. The meeting will coincide with the final public hearing on the district's budgetary and fiscal matters.

 
 

 

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