Sumter may raise fire assessments
The Villages has its own fire fee

BY JOE CALLAHAN
SENIOR THE STAR-BANNER


BUSHNELL - Sumter County Fire Chief Bill Gulbrandsen says it is time to raise the county's fire assessments by $7 for the next budget year to keep up with rising insurance, fuel and utility costs.

The fee hasn't been raised in six years, according to Gulbrandsen, but at the same time, costs have risen dramatically.

The Villages wants the increase, and it will likely be approved for the retirement community - but not all of the county commissioners like the idea of an increase for the entire county.

Currently, all homes in Sumter County are assessed $56 for fire services. But The Villages retirement community wanted to upgrade their services in 1999 and chose to assess an additional $45 through the Villages Center Community Development District to pay for the creation of The Villages Fire Department.

Gulbrandsen said in a June 6 letter to county commissioners that money from the general fund is being used to subsidize Sumter County Fire-Rescue to help cover the rising cost of fuel, insurance and other costs, but the commission has not subsidized The Villages Fire Department.

Furthermore, Gulbrandsen said since all residents pay ad valorem taxes, Villages residents feel they are being taxed twice, since general fund money is being paid to supplement the fire service outside The Villages.

"It could be argued that residents of the Villages Fire District, in addition to paying 100 percent of the costs of (their fire services), are also subsidizing some of the operation of the Sumter County Fire-Rescue," he wrote. "Some residents may view this situation as possible double taxation of Villages residents."

Sumter County, however, could end up chipping in for The Villages Fire Department. According to Gary Reynolds, Sumter County's finance director, the Villages Fire Department is also about $200,000 short for the budget year that ends in September.

If county commissioners decided to help out, they would be faced with the prospect of subsidizing The Villages Fire Department for a community that decided to have its own fire service.

"We are not going to let them hang out to dry," said Commissioner Jim Roberts, adding that solutions will have to be addressed before the next budget year.

However, Pete Wahl - who heads up the Villages Center Community Development District - said they discovered the reason for the shortfall and will likely not need for the Sumter County Commission to contribute to their budget.

Wahl said, for some unknown reason, fire assessments were not levied against commercial businesses for the 2004-05 budget year. Those will be immediately collected and the deficit should be solved.

One question has been how much to levy. Gulbransen said one short-term fix is to use the Consumer Price Index, where indicates a 12.9 percent rise in the cost of living. That would result in a $7.22 increase, or up to $63.22 in the fire assessment for all homes in Sumter County.

Wahl indicated The Villages will ask for the $7.22 increase in the Villages section for the 2005-2006 budget year.

Roberts said he would support a fee hike in The Villages if that is what they need - however, he would not support the hike for the rest of Sumter County.

Another problem Gulbrandsen noted is that there are some problems with the commercial property fire assessments as well.

In fact, the letter states, one business can be just 2 square feet larger than its neighbor, pushing the fee into a different tier and forcing the larger business owner to pay more than double the fire assessment.

Gulbrandsen met with officials with the Villages Public Safety Department recently and they all agree a new fire assessment study needs to be completed.

That study, he recommends, should be completed by March 2006 and implemented during the 2006-07 fiscal year. The study should be implemented because the last one used growth data from 1997-98.

The board passed a motion to complete the study by next March.

Gulbrandsen, in his letter, urged commissioners to implement the new assessments and fire study to allow the fire districts to serve their respective areas of responsibility "in a manner which maintains their current levels of service."

Commission Chairman Joey Chandler said the letter is for information purposes only, and the issue will have to be carefully addressed by the entire board before any decision will be made.

"The board wants to study the issue very closely," Chandler said, adding the board is very frugal and much more information is needed to solve the problem.

Joe Callahan can be reached at joe.callahan@starbanner.com or paged at (352) 898-9649.

FIRE ASSESSMENT
Currently, all homes in Sumter County are assessed $56 for fire services. Homes in The Villages are assessed an additional $45 to fund The Villages Fire Department.

A LITTLE EXTRA
The Sumter County fire chief wants to raise annual fees by $7.22, which The Villages supports. But county commissioners are undecided on whether to apply that increase to residents outside of the retirement community.