Fire department funding needs to be more equitable


Guest opinion: Rick Diamond


On June 10 the 3,124 registered voters in the Bayshore Fire District will be asked to approve increasing their fire tax by one mill to 3.5 mills. District officials have made an extensive effort to inform the public of the vote to avoid the criticism recently directed at the Iona-McGregor Fire District.

Back on May 6 only 5.7 percent of the 32,718 voters in the Iona-McGregor Fire District went to the polls and approved increasing their fire tax from 1.5 mills to 2.5 mills by a 1,305 to 551 margin. About one-third of the voters in the district were never notified by mail of the election.

Assistant Fire Chief Steven Juntikka said he and other officials were unaware that the supervisor of elections could have supplied the names and addresses of all registered voters in the district. Instead the fire district used a direct mail vendor to send out 21,535 newsletters, addressed to Householder, which reached only about 70 percent of the registered voters.

Even with more notification I doubt the result would have been different, but I am troubled with single-item elections when nearly 95 percent of the voters do not participate. It is time for the Legislature to mandate that election offices notify all registered voters by mail when a special taxing district is holding a referendum for a tax increase.

Sixteen independent fire districts, plus the Fort Myers and Cape Coral fire departments, provide fire protection in Lee County. This raises a number of questions. Are 16 independent fire districts necessary? Some firemen, who live out of their district, serve as fire commissioners in the districts where they live; is this helpful or a potential conflict?

Lastly, is it fair that the property assessments in a district determine how much a family will pay for fire protection? The wealthier the community in terms of total assessed property, the less homeowners will have to pay.

For example in Bayshore, if the 1-mill increase is approved and fully implemented, the fire tax on a home assessed at $200,000, after the homestead exemption, will amount to $700. On Sanibel Island, the same assessment will cost the homeowner $166 for fire protection.

Several years ago, an outside consulting firm concluded that consolidation of all the districts would not necessarily be cost effective or lead to greater fire protection in a county nearly the size of Rhode Island.

This study did raise the need for meaningful cooperation among the districts. Juntikka, who heads operations at the Iona-McGregor district, also chairs the Automatic Inter-Agency Mutual Aid committee, which is developing a countywide computerized program to have online in a few years.

All fire stations, equipment and personnel in the county are being entered into a master data bank so that soon, when the responding unit needs backup it will enter a code into the system that indicates the type of assistance needed. The program will then automatically dispatch the nearest equipment and personnel required.

Iona-McGregor Fire District is one of the largest in the county, serving a population of about 60,000 with a full-time staff of 84 firefighters and administrative workers. Over the past 20 years, the number of its calls requiring responses to medical emergencies, car accidents and fires has increased 450 percent, from 1,463 to over 6,500 last year.

Until now the growth in new construction has generated enough property tax revenue, currently $7 million annually, to keep pace with the cost of operations while impact fees have provided funding for station houses and equipment.

However a new state law and stricter standards enacted by the National Fire Protection Association, requiring more protection for both firemen and the public, have created the need in the district for at least 15 more firefighters to cope with these changes that call for added staffing and quicker response times.

Unless there is a major catastrophe, the district, which has the right to raise taxes a full mill, should be able to live with a modest quarter-of-a mill increase, which will still raise $1 million additionally in tax revenue. By contrast, a full mill increase in much smaller and less affluent Bayshore will raise only an additional $226,000 but this should be more than adequate for the four to five additional firefighters it will require under the new regulations.

Nine-Eleven has given all of us a deeper appreciation of the courage and professionalism of our firefighters and I hope that the recent flap over the May 6 vote has not, in any way, diminished that feeling.


Rick Diamond is a retired newspaper publisher who lives in Fort Myers.