Lakeland Fire Chief Urges Tax Increase
By Eric Pera
LAKELAND -- Fire Chief Mike Mohler urged city commissioners Monday to pass a property tax increase that would pay to staff a proposed sixth fire station in Lakeland's northern reaches.
"We need more firefighters and more stations," Mohler said. "The city has just grown so much, and we have not grown with it."
City Manager Roger Haar has proposed boosting the property tax rate by 55 cents to $3.545 per $1,000 of taxable value, raising an additional $1.8 million annually. The city's property tax rate and budget must be approved before the fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Most of the added revenue would pay for 15 firefighters to be based at a new station planned for State Road 33 and Old Combee Road. The city now has 111 firefighters and five fire stations. The remaining tax revenue would allow the city to keep nine police jobs which are scheduled to be cut because of expiring federal grants.
The first of two public hearings on the tax issue will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 3 at City Hall, followed by another 6 p.m. hearing Sept. 15.
At Monday's informal meeting to discuss public safety needs, commissioners mostly listened to Mohler and Assistant Police Chief Bill LePere present reports in support of the tax proposal.
Police Chief Roger Boatner said his department is operating close to the bone, and any staff reduction might jeopardize public safety.
"We will police to the level of services the public wants us to," he said. "We're not asking for additions. We're asking for us to continue what we have."
At earlier meetings Mayor Buddy Fletcher has said he favors economizing rather than raising taxes.
But Monday, he seemed open to the idea. "We want to give our police and fire everything they need . . . I don't want to go backward."
Commissioner Howard Wiggs said after the meeting that he won't support a tax increase because it would burden property owners during hard economic times.
Instead, he favors eliminating some projects on the city's wish list to pay for police and fire services.
"This might be the time to wait a year, delay some other projects," he said. "The economy's going to turn around."
Fire impact fees will pay to build a new fire station in the city's fast-growing northeast section.
But Haar has argued that to pay for its operation would require a bump in property tax.
If approved by the City Commission, the annual tax bill for the owner of a $75,000 house with a $25,000 homestead exemption would rise $25.50 from $149.75 to $177.25, an increase of 18.4 percent.
Lakeland, a city of 85,517, has 1.27 firefighters per capita, which is fewer than some Florida cities with similar populations, including Boca Raton's 2.2 firefighters, Pompano Beach's 2 and Largo's 1.6. Of the 15,621 Lakeland Fire Department runs last year, 85 percent were for medical emergencies, meaning that only 15 percent are fire related.
Commissioner Gow Fields asked Mohler if he could pare staff by eliminating medical runs.
Mohler said no, adding that the medical service is a bargain for taxpayers because his personnel would otherwise be sitting idle most of the time. Still, he argued that 15 more firefighters are badly needed to staff a sixth fire station to alleviate runs out of station No. 3 at 110 W. Bella St., which serves North Lakeland.
Station No. 3 had 5,220 runs last year, or 2,086 more than the next busiest -- station No. 1 on East Rose Street downtown.
In 1987, when Lakeland last built a fire station, the entire city had 5,082 for the year.
Mohler said the city doesn't meet new standards set by the National Fire Protection Association which calls for a response time of four firefighters on the scene in four minutes 90 percent of the time.
"We can't come close to that," Mohler said.
Eric Pera can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7528.
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08-20-2003, 02:00 PM #1
Lakeland--Fire Chief says "We need more money!"09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
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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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