Villages fire unit looks for more cash
The department would boost its finances by a fee increase and some delayed billing.

By Erin Cox | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 1, 2005


THE VILLAGES -- The retirement community's fire department stands to gain a significant financial boost from two separate money-raising initiatives.

One would increase fire-service fees for Villages residents by nearly 13 percent.

The other would recoup about $200,000 in fire-service fees that never were collected from businesses in the Sumter County portion of The Villages.

County building officials are still sorting out why 215 new businesses were not billed for fire service.

"I'm not being a fire chief right now. I'm being a number chaser," Villages Fire Chief Mike Tucker said a few weeks ago as he pored over property records.

Officials say they plan to forgive fees more than two years old because it was their mistake, but they are trying to recover the rest of the fees that range from $100 to $5,000 a year, depending on the building size.

The money amounts to 9 percent of the funds needed to operate the five-station, 40-officer department, officials said.

"It's not been done yet, and, to be honest with you, we're trying to look for a shortcut," said Sumter County Manager Bernard Dew. "Everybody's swamped this time of year."

Fire assessment fees typically are part of a county's tax bill. But new buildings do not appear on the tax rolls for up to 23 months. Instead of sending a separate bill, the county decided to charge the fire-service fee when builders paid for their building permits, Dew said.

Building official Skip Lukert said he was never told to collect it.

A separate proposal to bring more money to the department would increase the $56 residential fire fee to $63.22, a 12.9 percent increase that would still make it one of the lowest in Central Florida.

The increase would bring in approximately $120,000 more each year from the 30,000 Villages residents living in Sumter County.

The hearing on raising fees will be Aug. 30 at the Sumter County Courthouse in Bushnell.

That fee has not changed since the county carved out The Villages Fire Authority in 1999.

But since then, insurance costs have risen and fuel prices have doubled, officials said.

With the aging population and growth of more than 300 houses each month last year, the fire department meets an ever increasing demand of health or public-service calls.

It handled 4,500 calls in 2004, and has seen a 20 percent increase each year since it was formed.

Officials said the county has reserve funds that can be used for the fire department through the end of the fiscal year in September if necessary.

The residential fees are paid through The Villages real estate office as part of the closing costs. Until recently, the fees collected were enough to cover the annual budget.

"We've been able to live off the new growth," Tucker said.

Erin Cox can be reached at 352-742-5926 or ecox@orlandosentinel.com.