Fire chief, administration given raises

Board approves budget, salaries

By JOEL MORONEY
JMORONEY@NEWS-PRESS.COM
Published by news-press.com on September 21, 2005
The new budget for the Lehigh Acres fire district hands a 10 percent raise to the chief they have voted to terminate.

The fire board previously voted to seek a buyout of Chief James Cardoza's $105,000-a-year contract after he let certification on a new ladder truck lapse, meaning they could not use it, and recommended for promotion to lieutenant a firefighter who pleaded no contest to indecent exposure after he was arrested for exposing himself to an undercover police officer posing as a prostitute.

Lehigh resident Harold Doidge, 70, said he sat through the nearly four-hour meeting on Wednesday to ask about the chief's contract buyout, only to be told the board would not address it.

Lehigh Fire Commissioner Joel Guzman, who is a firefighter in the Iona/McGregor fire district where he was reached at work Friday, declined to discuss Lehigh's doubling revenue or the fire chief's situation.

Chief Cardoza was not available for comment.

In Lehigh, the tax rate is set to drop about 20 cents to $2.80 per $1,000 in home value but the department's tax revenue will still double because of a 99 percent increase in property values.

The slightly lower rate will generate more than $12 million next year, compared with this year's $6.6 million, according to preliminary data provided by the appraiser's office.

Doidge said even with all the taxes, a resident faces a fee of more than $300 for a trip in an ambulance.

"Sit back, open wide, like the dentist said, not your mouth but your pocketbook," he said.

On Wednesday, Lehigh's fire board approved a $25.38 million budget that includes an anticipated $8 million loan for construction of two new stations and rebuilding of a third as well as several

million in impact fees and more than $12 million in property taxes, according to Administrative Assistant Sue Platas.

In addition to the property tax, districts collect impact fees from new construction, which helps pay for new stations and equipment to deal with growth.

In Lehigh's case, it collects $388 for each new home, $244 per apartment, $396 per hotel room, $497 per 1,000 square foot of retail space, and additional sums for offices, public buildings, and industrial and warehouse facilities.

Early this year, Lehigh's board members voted to give themselves a 100 percent raise, to $500 a month the maximum allowed by law.

"Oh, yes," Doidge said. "That was their first order of business."

Lehigh's new budget gives raises averaging about 20 percent to the department's secretaries and bookkeepers and cost of living raises to the fire marshals.

According to a salary survey of other fire departments presented to the board last week by Guzman, only the Lehigh fire marshal is paid more than anyone else in the county with the same job. For the most part, Lehigh salaries ranked toward the middle of the survey.

Guzman used the survey as a guideline for determining salary increases.

The two largest percentage raises went to the secretary for the prevention office, who got a 26 percent raise from $24,960 to $31,500, and secretary for the administrative office, who got a 23 percent raise from $29,352 to $36,000.

The raises were part of a new regimented payscale that should bring Lehigh's secretaries' salaries more in line with those working in other departments, fire board members said.

Fire Marshal Henry McCarty and Deputy Chief of Support Services Bill Liedtke, each received 3.46 percent cost of living raises. According to Guzman's survey of other departments, McCarty is already the highest paid fire marshal in the county, at $95,455, and Liedtke is the fourth highest at $86,139. With the cost of living increases, their salaries will be $98,758 and $89,119, respectively.

Board members have said salary increases are necessary to recruit and retain quality employees.

According to the salary survey, an 18 percent increase would have made Cardoza the highest paid chief in the county at $123,900. The board asked Cardoza what he thought his raise should be and Cardoza said, after considering what other chiefs were making, he suggested 10 percent, which was approved, 4-1, bringing his salary to $115,500.

Cardoza had said the fact he was leaving shouldn't have any bearing on his salary.

Guzman, who initiated the buyout, voted against the raise.

A 2004 series by The News-Press reported the department's wages have increased by about 50 percent since 2000.

A contract for firefighter/paramedics has yet to be approved. The board hopes to approve the contract at a special meeting 6 p.m. Monday.

Staff writer Heather Peurano contributed to this story.