St. Lucie fire chief seeks budget increase
By Jim Reeder

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, July 14, 2005

FORT PIERCE St. Lucie County Fire Chief Jay Sizemore wants to boost the district's budget from $47.3 million to $58.3 million next year, an increase he said is needed to replace worn out equipment and hire 50 more people.

But he agreed to try to cut the proposal in hopes of reducing the tax rate by more than the 3 cents per $1,000 taxable value he suggested Wednesday. This year's tax rate is $2.78 per $1,000 taxable value, or $556 on property with a taxable value of $200,000.

The $2.75 tax rate he proposes would reduce that bill to $550 if the property value remains the same as last year.

But other property owners could see their tax bills increase 20.9 percent because of higher property values from the county's real estate boom. Owners of houses with the homestead exemption will be protected from that big of an increase by the 3 percent cap on increased assessments.

"We're aware of the increase, but with more property in the county we have to provide more service," Sizemore said.

His proposal calls for hiring 45 new firefighters, two fire inspectors, an additional employee for the Human Services Department and two building maintenance workers.

Twenty of the new firefighters would ensure there will be five people on duty at all times at every fire station, he said.

The other 25 will allow firefighters to work 48 hours a week instead of the current 52 hours, he said.

Port St. Lucie Councilman Chris Cooper, a firefighter in Palm Beach County, praised the shorter work week and having more people on duty at each station.

"Other departments have had the (shorter work week) for years," Cooper said. "We're behind."

He and Sizemore said having five people at each station will mean greater safety at a fire scene by having people to provide backup if someone gets trapped in a burning building.

County Commissioner Doug Coward said the district might be able to reduce the tax rate further by collecting higher impact fees on new construction and charging higher fees to review new building plans.

"Why should current residents pay higher taxes so a developer can have his plans reviewed for fire safety?" Coward said.

The district soon will receive a consultant's report on possible impact fee increases on new construction.

Sizemore said he may be able to reduce the budget by delaying the purchase of some new equipment.

He wants to replace 15 infrared cameras which can detect sources of heat in a building, buy new air packs and buy a new truck for the hazardous materials team.

Board members will review the budget again and set a maximum tax rate at 3 p.m. on July 20. The tax rate set then can be reduced but cannot be increased when the budget is adopted following public hearings Sept. 14 and 21.