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    Exclamation Lake County Fire Taxes May be on the RISE

    Lake County seeks fire assessment fee hike


    08/17/03
    By JACOB OGLES
    Daily Commercial Staff Writer
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    TAVARES A test of how much taxpayers are willing to pay to be safe from fires is under way in Lake County.

    After five years of steady $5 increases in annual fire assessments, Lake County Manager Bill Neron is proposing county commissioners boost fees more than $37 this year.

    The tactic, which will be discussed by the board Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Lake County Administrative Building, is the only way the county will be able to pay for the level of service commissioners have called for, Neron said.

    He said the proposed $137 assessment would keep the service at its currently approved level, allow the county to open new two already approved fire stations at Harbor Shores and Lake Jem and establish a vehicle replacement program where none exists. It would also help reduce resonse times to five minutes in urban areas and 10 minutes in rural areas. The request would guarantee a sustained level of service for two years, allowing the county time to try to negotiate cooperative coverage agreements with municipalities and develop a new five-year plan.

    “This has never been properly funded to accommodate the growth we have experienced,” Neron said. “For the number of new firefighters we have hired, we really should have been raising the fee $10 each year.”

    The rate is paid by all homeowners in an area served by Lake County Fire Rescue rather than a municipal or private agency.

    Neron said the level of service can be scaled back so the fee increase is not needed, but his staff doesn’t recommend that approach. If the full amount is not granted this year, the fire department will not be able to sustain a proper level of service, and the rates will have be increased by a larger amount in a future year.

    “We are at a pivotal moment here,” said Interim Public Safety Director Gary Kaiser.

    Neron will present four options at the Tuesday workshop nesides the reccomended $137 fee.

    If the board opts to sustain the current $99.23 assessment, county staff members said two existing stations in Eustis and Fruitland Park would have to close, the new stations could not open, the 12 unfilled positions would be eliminated, twenty additional employees would have to be laid off and the response times would remain at the existing levels of six minutes in urban areas and 12 minutes in rural areas.

    Various other scenarios are outlined by staff based on different funding levels between the recommended rate and the existing one. If a rate of $125 is proposed, the report says the current level of service would be maintained. The response times would be unchanged, the same stations would be opened and current staff would be kept, though the 12 unfilled positions would disappear.

    Neron and Kaiser said numerous factors have contributed to the increased financial needs of the department. The agency has been underfunded for years, they said, but recent actions by cities have greatly exacerbated the situation.

    Lady Lake commissioners opted this year to take the residents living in The Villages off county service and instead subscribe them to private service offered by The Villages governmental arm. Leesburg and Eustis have both annexed sizable portions of land adjacent to the city, subsequently taking those residents into the jurisdiction of their municipal fire departments.

    On the immediate horizon, other cities such as Minneola are considering alternatives to county service and may elect to establish municipal fire departments themselves.

    The combined problems created a $780,000 shortfall of expected revenue in the past year.

    Kaiser said the money is needed now, but that some innovation and negotiation is also necessary.

    “We need collaboration,” he said. “No more talk of cooperation. There are people that think cooperation means they tell us they need and we do it for them. We need to all be in this together and need to be accomplishing mutual goals.”

    Kaiser, a former Seminole County manager, would like a network of fire service between municipalities and the county that transcended city limits.

    Neron noted that when Eustis annexed the Park Place properties this year, an established plan whenever the city limits expanded to be contiguous, the county found itself with a fire station across the street from homes that were newly serviced by the Eustis Fire Department. A common sense solution, he said, would be for the county to continue servicing those particular homes despite their new status as Eustis properties.

    The county would like to broker such deals in the future, but said that might be difficult if it isn’t allowed the revenue now to provide strong service.

    And the revenue request is hardly a sure thing. Last year Neron wanted to raise fees above $120, but a state Supreme Court decision knocked most of that request flat, and commissioner votes did in the rest. The board opted by a 3-2 vote to stick with the five-year $5-per-year plan established by Neron’s predecessor Sue Whittle, the manager fired in 2001 before Neron took her place.

    Commissioners will decide Tuesday which options for rate increases should be considered at public hearings. The budget will be finalized in September.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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    Fire fees are likely to rise $37

    By Robert Sargent | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted August 20, 2003


    TAVARES -- A majority of Lake County commissioners on Tuesday endorsedraising fire fees by $37 a year to hire more firefighters and open stations in Harbor Shores and Lake Jem.

    The increase , from about $100 to $137, would be the sixth since Lake County Fire Rescue began charging the original $35 fee in 1998 -- nearly a 300 percent jump.

    Commissioners had several options for a smaller increase but decided the department needs the money.

    Commissioners will vote on the new fire fee at a Sept. 9 public hearing. That same day, they also will decide whether to increase the garbage-collection fee by $7 a year.

    Tuesday's discussion skirted recent debatesabout the embattled county fire system, including a proposal for cities to cover larger urban areas outside their boundaries.

    Rather, the main question was how to pay for better service to rural areas with less money.

    "We do it right, we do it safely, or we don't do it at all," said Gary Kaiser, Lake's interim public-safety director.

    The county will collect $780,000 less than last year because of annexations, and the losses likely will escalate in the coming years as cities with independent fire departments annex suburban areas in the county.

    The most recent losses include The Villages, which will start its own fire service in October, and two big annexations in Eustis and Leesburg.

    If commissioners opt for a smaller increase, Fire Rescue would have to lay off more than a dozen employees and close fire stations in Fruitland Park and Eustis , officials said. The two new stations in Harbor Shores and Lake Jem wouldn't be opened, which could anger residents counting on improved service.

    Lake Jem resident Jimmie Hixon said the station in her community is desperately needed -- even if it means raising her taxes.

    "We're not asking for better fire protection than the rest of the county, just asking for fire protection," she told commissioners.

    A house burned almost to the ground in April at Squirrel Point Road and Shirley Shores Road as county firefighters came from miles to fight the blaze.

    The commission also considered other options. For example, a $12 annual increase would prevent the station closings; the $32 amount would provide new employees for a fire station in the Harbor Shores and Grand Island areas near Lake Yale.

    The full $37 increase would be enough to staff the Harbor Shores location and the Lake Jem station, between Astatula and Tavares.

    County officials said they probably wouldn't have to raise the fee again for two years.

    Tavares council member Robert Moore is preparing a proposal to allow several city fire departments to cover larger zones beyond their municipal limits. That plan could improve fire service to more urban areas in the county, but it also would mean the loss of millions in revenue from the county's fire budget.

    Also on Tuesday, commissioners supported charging residents $7 more each year for garbage collection to help pay for increased hauling and disposal expenses. They liked the increase better than an alternative plan to cut annual fees by scheduling garbage pickup once a week rather than twice.

    Robert Sargent can be reached at rsargent@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5909.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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