Fire Department to hire seven new firefighters


ENGLEWOOD -- As Englewood Area Fire Control District members announced Wednesday they would soon try to hire at least six new firefighters thanks to the passage of last year's tax referendum, they also set a workshop to hear from local business owners who are still upset about the increase.

The fire board has long maintained the rate increase is needed to curb the problem of chronic understaffing in the department. But many within the local business community argued that too much of the revenue from the increase will come from their cash registers.

In November, voters passed a referendum to raise the yearly fire service charge from $82.79 a year to $110 for homeowners, and from 12.8 cents to 24 cents per square foot for commercial property owners. In determining the new rates, fire board members said they were bound by a state-mandated study conducted by a consultant that tied the rates to the proportion of emergency calls to specific types of property.

The board claims the projected revenue would allow the department to add 18 firefighters over the next two years, starting in October, the beginning of the department's fiscal year.

This week, the board voted to start by hiring seven firefighters -- six new positions plus a replacement for a firefighter who recently left -- before October.

"We can pay back the funds once we get the (tax) money in," explained board member Dee Hawkins.

Firefighter tests will be held this weekend in Venice, so some of those firefighters could be hired soon, Hawkins said.

Also this week, the board set a workshop for 7 p.m. on April 26 to discuss the rate increase. The workshop will be at the Fire Station 4 on Boundary Boulevard.

But a workshop isn't the ideal solution for Peter Matson, owner of the Blue Pineapple on West Dearborn Street.

"To have a workshop in this format is different than sitting down and trying to work it out," he said.

Matson and Gene McCall, another Dearborn business owner, have shown up at the last several meetings to demand information about the fire department's finances and to request individual conferences with board members. At this week's meeting, their requests for conferences were quashed by the board's attorney, Lori Wolff, who advised members that Matson's threat of a lawsuit could open them to liability if they met one-on-one.

In an interview Thursday, Matson denied ever threatening to sue the fire board. He said he preferred to settle the matter "in a reasonable way, (so) we don't have to take legal action."

He told the board in January that his organization, the Englewood Community Alliance, had retained a Tallahassee attorney to look into the board's methods for setting the rates and was trying to raise $50,000 for legal fees.

Hawkins said the workshop would be a good opportunity to "clear up some of the misinformation out there."

For instance, she said, the board won't decide whether to charge the full 24 cents per square foot until the tax rolls come in sometime around June.

"We're only going to charge for what we need," she said.

Since the referendum passed, Hawkins said, the board has heard complaints from "a very limited number" of business owners.

"But we're willing to listen, whether it's one or 100 people," she said.

You can e-mail Garry Overbey at overbey@sun-herald.com.


By GARRY OVERBEY

Assistant Englewood Editor