By Catherine Kruse
A referendum that addresses fairly sharing the costs of emergency fire, rescue, and other services among property owners in the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District (District) will be on the primary election voting ballot on August 18, 2020. This proposed change in the way that our District collects its’ revenue has been the topic of much conversation in our community.
This opportunity to vote for a more fair and equitable means of supporting the District is fulfilling a promise that the Board of Commissioners made to residents in 2014, when the current non-ad valorem special assessment was approved by voters in a referendum. Having served on the Board of Commissioners at that time, I felt it important to provide some background information as to why we are proposing replacing the demand based method with the simplified fire methodology.
First, to understand why a change from ad-valorem to a non-ad valorem methodology was proposed in 2014, we must look back to the housing market crash in 2009. Lehigh Acres property owners saw a large drop in their market assessed values, which in turn led to a significant drop in ad valorem taxes for the District. As a personal example, at the height of the housing boom, the highest amount I paid to the fire district was $465.86. After the crash, it dropped to $206.50.
Following the crash, the District’s revenue from ad valorem taxes dropped by more than half, and we fell into a $9 million operating deficit. The District made significant cuts to operating costs while continuing to provide emergency fire, rescue, and other services. The District let go over forty employees, and those left made significant concessions to their benefits and salary. Station improvement projects, such as roof replacements and electrical and plumbing upgrades, were put on hold for our aging stations. Much needed apparatus and equipment purchases were stalled. Our firefighters took over lawn maintenance and general repairs at the stations, all while answering a steadily increasing call load and maintaining their required hours of training to keep certifications.
Cutting the District’s emergency services to meet the decreased revenue would have proved catastrophic to our citizens. Fortunately, FEMA agreed. The District applied for, and received, two back-to-back SAFER Grants that helped cover re-hiring a number of Firefighter/EMTs and Firefighter/Paramedics. The fact that we received one of the largest grant amounts ever awarded spoke to their recognition of our community’s critical need. With concessions and budget constraints still in place, Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District was once again able to provide a higher level of service.
Recognizing that grant would eventually expire, and property values within the District had not increased to the point of being able to support adequate services, Administration and the Board of Commissioners searched for alternative options. The most appropriate option at the time was replacing ad valorem taxes with a non-ad valorem demand-based fire assessment methodology. While it would not provide for future growth, it would allow the district to keep staffing levels stable. Due to the continuing economic uncertainty, this was determined to be a Band-Aid, not a long-term solution, for the revenue problem of our growing District.
In 2014, by referendum, citizens recognized the importance of stabilizing the department revenue by approving the demand-based fire assessment in lieu of ad valorem taxes. This change allowed the District to maintain the amount of services provided to the community.
The District held several public hearings after the change to the demand-based assessment method. The property owners that experienced a decrease under the new assessment were happy, but owners who saw an increase expressed concerns that the new assessment methodology was not fair and equitable to all homeowners. They felt that residents that lived in larger, more improved properties should pay more than those that did not. Homeowners also expressed concern about the minimal assessment paid by vacant lot owners. During the hearings and later conversations, most recognized the immediate funding need but wanted us to continue to work for a better solution. The Board of Commissioners promised the community that they would continue to search for a fair and equitable assessment methodology that would also meet requirements of the law.
I believe the proposed simplified fire methodology in this referendum is the fair and equitable option that our community requested. All parcels share equally in providing support for emergency fire, rescue, and other services to citizens and visitors within the District. In addition to providing current services, it will also provide us the opportunity to execute our growth plan for the future that allows us to provide expedited services to all areas of our District.
Our goal is that all residents cast an informed vote on the funding for their emergency fire and rescue services. I encourage you to visit the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District website to learn more about the proposed simplified fire methodology and vote on August 18.