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Referendum fails, fire district to regroup

June 12, 2019
By MELISSA BILL (news@breezenewspapers.com) , Lehigh Acres Citizen

With a budget shortfall looming and no money for a new station, the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District is regrouping in the wake of its failed bid to change the way it assessess property owners for services.

"Now, without the added revenue, station 106 won't happen," said Chief Robert DiLallo. "We simply can't afford to build, staff or operate the station. This also means we won't be able to meet the county's requirements for rescue response times. The next step is to meet with the county and turn in our report. From there the county will decide what steps they want to take."

Lehigh Acres voters within the district rejected last Tuesday the special referendum placed on the ballot.

According to the Lee County Supervisor of Elections Office, 55.4 percent of voters opposed the new fire assessment method fire officials had said would stabilize the district's revenue and better share costs.

Voter turnout was light at 6.68 percent, with 3,417 voters from the 51,117 registered casting a ballot.

If passed, the proposed fee structure would have provided a $8- to $10 million dollar increase in fire district revenue.

According to DiLallo, the referendum outcome means not only a large shortfall in its budget but no way to fund a new station in the North Sunshine Boulevard section of the district's territory.

During the district's previous monthly meeting, Attorney Mark Lawson spoke about a low voter turn-out scenario. The district could choose to try to further educate the public and put the referendum up for vote again during the 2020 elections.

According to DiLallo, even if the referendum did pass in 2020, it might be a little too late since the funding is needed right now to keep up with Lehigh Acre's growth.

"Even if it passed, we would not be able to get it into the budget until 2021 or even 2022. We are strapped. Already down 15 firefighters and still trying to get back to the staffing levels from 2009," DiLallo.

The fire district board will meet to discuss its next steps, but most likely 100 percent of the properties will see an increase in their non-ad valorem taxes.

"Most likely the board will vote to increase the non-ad valorem assessment rate to the 3.49. That will raise the assessments rates across the board. The outcome of this election was hard to understand, since the majority of home owners would have seen decreases in their assessment fees," DiLallo said.

The polls showed a very light turnout despite four separate notices sent out by the fire district to registered voters.

"Besides our mailouts, every media outlet had announced the upcoming special election although the majority of them did not present the facts about the special assessment fee even though we sent out numerous press releases with all the details. One in particular just ran an article saying that the taxes were going to increase by $165 per parcel. That confused many people," DiLallo said.

According to DiLallo, besides helping to fund the new station, the increased revenue would have helped pay for an ambulance and to replace an aging 15-year-old ladder truck.

Despite the recent defeat, DiLallo remains dedicated to help push the fire district through and continue to provide firefighting and ALS services for preserving life and property within the 142 square mile district.

"This fire department has and will always try to do the best they can do with what we have," DiLallo said.

The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District will hold its next regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, June 25, at 5 p.m. Meeting are held at fire station 104 at 3102 16th Street SW, Lehigh Acres. For more information visit www.lehighfd.com/

 
 

 

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