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Fire board to try for ‘fairer’ assessment methodology

November 1, 2017
By ERIC DeVAUX (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

In looking for a better way to assess its special fire assessments for property owners, the Lehigh Fire Control and Rescue District's board listened to a presentation on one methodology for averaging the fees.

Attorney Mark G. Lawson spoke before the fire board at its regular meeting on Oct. 23. He went over how to make the special assessments fair to residents and businesses that own property in Lehigh.

"We created an alternative approach called simplified fire," Lawson said. "We don't care about the demand that fire has because you have to put it out. What we've always focused on is the budget because the budget is nothing more than your commitment to the level of service."

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ERIC DEVAUX
Attorney Mark G. Lawson explains an alternative “fairer” method of assessing property owners for fire service fees.

He explained that no matter what happens, the fire district is still going to have to pay for numerous things because fires happen without warning.

"The calls that go to (a) property, you can measure them statically until you're blue in the face. They are random," Lawson said. "Now, there are more fires under certain circumstances than others, but the reality is you don't have as many fire calls as you have other calls."

He went into detail for the board about the methodology.

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"(We) took that real-life concept - what you have to recover to pay for the readiness to serve - and ran (that) through the sieve of what Florida law is on how you do the special assessments," Lawson said. "What it does is two things: It distills the repeated and constantly updated and the certified data from your property appraiser that you pay for when you pay your taxes to the county. We take their certified rule, and we merely subtract from just value to land value."

In result, the equation will find out the relative improvement number.

"Then we bring in an economist. He looks at the budget, digests the budget and says, 'These are fixed, these are variable,'" he said.

Lawson offered more details on the benefits of the methodology.

"What you do is you can then, individually, apply rates and achieve equity," he said. "We put the bumpers down the bowling alley, so you just determine what rates to apply and stay within the law."

To put the plan into motion, Lawson would have to go to court on behalf of the fire district and get validation. He explained that he wants Lehigh to have its own voice, like that of an incorporated city.

"We're not going in there unless we know we won before we go," Lawson said.

Attorney Richard Pringle, the fire board's lawyer, elaborated.

"If you're successful with changing the law, you would create a situation where you, the fire district, as government agency is treated very similarly to a county or municipality with regard to home-rule power, with regard to the ability to impose an assessment," he said.

Lawson reiterated that the plan would result in fair assessments for all property owners.

"What our methodology does is relies on the economic determination that says every parcel by its very presence in your community creates an obligation for you to make services available, whether it is a vacant lot or a lot with a home on it or a lot with a McDonald's on it. It's extraordinarily fair," he said. "What we can do is help you adjust and figure out how to charge per parcel basis."

A couple of years ago, the city of Cape Coral switched to a two-tiered approach that was created by Lawson to assess and fund its fire service operations. One tier is a base charge to all landowners. The second is based on the value of the improved property, like a big-box store or a single-family home.

Fire Commissioner Debra Cunningham voiced support for it.

"It sounds to me what Mr. Lawson is offering to us is exactly what the people are asking for," she said.

The board voted in favor of moving the methodology forward.

The fire board also passed a resolution to move $4 million from the fire district's SunTrust money market account to Florida Fixed Income Trust, which will be managed by Water Walker Investments.

Commissioners Linda Linda Carter. noted that storm shutters and plywood still remain up in Lehigh.

"When I came down 8th Street again today, there was at least 100 houses that still had wooden plywood up on houses, shutters on the houses and people still living in there," she said.

Carter called attention to the dangers associated with leaving them up post-storm.

"I know hurricane season ends the end of next month, but the point is that smoke is going to build up and it's going to be dark and our guys are going to have to vent those windows and rip out the shutters in case somebody is in those houses," she said in the case of a house fire. "We've got to start pushing to at least have some light into those houses because it is unsafe for our firefighters going in."

The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District board will hold its next meeting on Nov. 28 at 5 p.m. at Station 104, at 3102 16th St. S.W.

For more information, call 239-303-5300 or visit online at www.lehighfd.com.

 
 

 

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