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Fire district: more education needed on ‘Simplified Fire Assessment’

By Staff | Aug 5, 2020

The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District addressed a pair of issues at its July 28 meeting — COVID-19 and what it says are continuing misconceptions related to its proposed change in the way the district assesses property owners.

Fire Chief Robert DiLallo first discussed current COVID-19 standings as well as other district business during his department reports.

“I like to give people an update on COVID-19 pandemic. We are seeing a large spike in Lee County and in the State of Florida. We continue to follow all recommendations and guidelines made by the state. There are also a few projects on hold because of COVID,” DiLallo said. “I do want to report that we are finally going to break ground by late August on station 102,” DiLallo stated.

DiLallo also commented on the district’s recent ISO report an evaluation of the Public Protection Classification (PPC) for the district through ISO Mitigation that LAFCRD participates in every three years.

“The district has maintained its current ISO rating PPC 3Y for our community,” DiLallo said.

According to DiLallo, in regards to the upcoming elections, the district’s staff continues to work hard to update the community and get what it says is the correct information out about the Simple Fire Assessment.

The district is seeking approval from Lehigh Acres voters during the Primary Elections to replace the current “demand-based” assessment with what it calls a simplified fire assessment methodology, where property owners would pay an annual assessment not exceeding $162 per parcel plus $.93 per $1,000 of value of improvements on a parcel of land.

The first attempt for this methodology failed during a special election held on June 4, 2019.

During the meeting, DiLallo focused on clarifying what he said are several public misconceptions found on various social media outlets.

“We have been observing a lot of miscommunications on the Simplified Fire Assessment. What people will pay and what this would change. Currently, district property owners pay a fire assessment that uses a demand-based methodology. We have used this assessment since 2015, when voters approved switching from ad-valorem taxes to the non-ad valorem. This assessment replaced collecting ad-valorem taxes. We do not receive any taxes from the county,” DiLallo said.

According to DiLallo, another misconception was that this referendum included language that changes the rights of the district to levy increases on property owners.

“Increases are limited by state statute, and the language in this referendum is written the same as our current assessment methodology — annual increases are based on the average annual growth in Florida’s personal income over the previous five years,” DiLallo said.

DiLallo also stressed that the change in the methodology for the fire assessment on the ballot for voter approval is a replacement, not an additional assessment.

“One of the main reasons that the current ad valorem tax does not work for our district is the disproportionate amount of vacant land here that currently has very low value. Due to the district’s size of (142 square miles) and the current low value of the estimated 88,000 undeveloped and often overgrown vacant lots in the district, ad valorem taxes do not support the needed revenue to provide for the growth and future demands of emergency services, including ambulance services. If the district reverts back to ad valorem taxes, many homeowners will probably see a significant increase in their assessment,” DiLallo said.

The Lehigh Acres Lot Owners Association is one group in opposition of the simplified assessment methodology calling it unfair and saying it places a disproportionate burden on the owners of the nearly 90,000 vacant lots. This group also says the increase from the current assessment of $25 per lot to the proposed $162 is excessive for unimproved properties.

Commissioner Chairperson Cathy Kruse added her thoughts on the public’s awareness of the assessment during closing remarks.

“I was going over public comments and concerns and had some requests from citizens wanting to know more about the assessment and what it entails. We definitely need to continue to work to get that information out there to them,” Kruse said.

The board of commissioners also approved several items on their agenda including the approval of amending its Mission Statement to help describe the LAFCRD service area; and to move towards an electronic employee reimbursement system and to stop the utilization of petty cash.

For more information on the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District and the Simplified Fire Assessment visit www.lehighfd.com/

Upcoming LAFCRD board of commissioners meetings include: Aug. 10 at 6 p.m., Aug. 25 at 5 p.m., and Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.