Fire tax increase a tough sell


ENGLEWOOD -- Ideally, there should be four people riding each fire engine in the Englewood Area Fire Control District.

This is the standard for firefighting districts across the country, but unfortunately, that number is not possible in Englewood, where two on a truck is the norm.

"It would be wonderful if we could have that many," said Assistant Chief Kirk Gaskell during a special fire commission meeting Thursday night related to a possible tax increase.

"It is all a balancing act," Gaskell said. "We will do what we can to increase service to citizens of Englewood as best we can."

This strains the fire response system any time a serious fire or accident occurs, pulling firefighters from their districts and leaving one or two trucks to cover an area larger than the city of St. Petersburg.

Fire commissioners made a presentation about a possible ballot issue which would ask residents for a property tax increase of 0.5 mills, then potentially an additional yearly increase of 0.25 mills in subsequent years.

A 0.5 mills increase would mean an additional $37.50 a year for a home with a $100,000 assessed value and a $25,000 homestead exemption.

The issue is expected to be on the ballot March 9.

The fire district is hoping to add three new stations, add firefighters, help lower fire insurance rates, significantly reduce response times to calls and increase training to handle the perils of a modern society where terrorism is a reality.

"We aren't asking for something extravagant with this list," said Fire Commissioner Dee Hawkins.

If the 0.5 mills increase seems high, the district could have opted for a 3.75 mills increase under state law.

State Rep. Jerry Paul, R-Port Charlotte, offered a few suggestions to the commissioners about marketing the millage increase.

Among the things Paul suggested is to emphasize two key items, namely response times and the increased training rather than adding three new fire stations.

"I would focus on issues of commonality," he said. "You are giving the community an opportunity for a high level of safety and security ... Don't divide the neighborhoods by demographics."

Paul also suggested the commissioners not be apologetic for asking for more money.

Fire Commissioner Bob Markus said he was apologizing since he and every other resident of the area received their notices of high taxes from other areas.

Chief Michael Bonakoske said the district has a partnership with the residents.

"We are telling people the need and they have a choice in determining what they want," Bonakoske said.

Other suggestions offered to help get the tax increase passed included having fire representatives go to various homeowner's associations.

"It is an easier sell if you personalize it," said Gene Naples, who is a former firefighter and state fire marshal.

Many questions need to be answered before the ballot item is finalized, Markus said.

One way for people to see some of the realities of the fire district is to go to its Web site, which Markus has customized for easy use.

"Everything we are talking about is there," he said.

There will be a series of additional public hearings and forums as the details of the tax increase be clearer. The next meeting is 5 p.m. Sept. 10 at Station 4, 403 Boundary Blvd., Rotonda West.


ON THE WEB

The Englewood Area Fire Control District Web site details the proposed millage increase: www.englewood-fire.com

You can e-mail Bob Reddy at breddy@sun-herald.com