Some Collier fire districts eye tax rate hikes, federal grants to make ends meet - POLL

Independent: Big Corkscrew Island, East Naples, Golden Gate, Immokalee and North Naples

Dependent (County-run): Isles of Capri and Ochopee

Municipal: Marco Island and Naples

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— From heart attacks to house fires, Collier County’s independent fire districts are called on to save people at risk.

But now at least two districts are asking their communities to come to their aid.

Several fire boards are considering increased tax rates to stay in the black.

Cost-cutting measures like furloughs and layoffs have been part of the process to pare down budgets in light of another foreseen property value decline in the coming fiscal year. But just as less money needs to go out, more needs to come in.

The county’s five independent fire districts are almost exclusively funded by property taxes, and consecutive years of property value decreases have taken a sizeable bite out of budgets.

Following a referendum and board approval, Big Corkscrew likely will lead the pack with an increase from $2 per $1,000 of property value to $3.75 per $1,000 this coming fiscal year.

“It’s not going to be popular, but it’s something that we’re going to have to do,” said Paul Plamondon, board chairman for the district. “I pay (taxes), too. We don’t have a choice ... You just can’t cut hardly any more out of the budget to be functional. You have to be able to operate.”

The increase may keep Big Corkscrew Island’s fire trucks running but the district remains well below — $1.3 million below — the budget it was functioning at two years ago, department Fire Chief Rita Greenberg said.

In neighboring Immokalee, commissioners voted earlier this summer to put the tax rate cap increase up to a referendum in next year’s primary elections. The district is asking for an increase from $3 to $3.75 per $1,000 property value.

“It’s going to be on the ballot. I hope we can do some sort of analysis and publish it for people to see what their taxes would be with the increase,” said Pam Brown, board chairwoman for the Immokalee fire district.

If approved, properties wouldn’t be assessed at the new rate until the fiscal year beginning in 2012.

Commissioners in the three other independent fire districts in Collier — East Naples, Golden Gate and North Naples — are mixed on if, or when, their districts could see a tax rate increase.

East Naples fire district will hold steady at $1.50 per $1,000 property value, according to Tara Bishop, the department’s director of administrative support services.

Taxable value drop, 2008-10

Big Corkscrew -55 percent

Golden Gate -39 percent

East Naples -27 percent

Immokalee -23 percent

North Naples -17 percent

“That’s our cap. We need to work within that right now,” Bishop said. While

“nothing has not been discussed,” a definitive plan for additional sources of revenue hasn’t been formulated, she added.

Golden Gate’s fire department is also at its cap of $1.50 per $1,000 property value.

Kevin Gerrity, board chairman for the district, said that while there are no plans to increase the tax rate in his district, “everything is on the table.”

“The funding mechanism we have is not a good system. It encourages these commissioners to overspend ... and it doesn’t provide a floor of a revenue stream when times are bad,” said Gerrity, a former fire chief in Cleveland.

Instead, Gerrity suggests a fixed-rate system wherein property owners would pay a flat fee up to $300,000 of property value. Anything above $300,000 would be subject to additional taxes. The idea would be to create a more stable revenue stream not as influenced by fluctuations in property values, he said.

“If we don’t want to move on getting rid of any people, which I wouldn’t support, and we have a limit on how much we’ll tap into reserves in a year — all that’s getting close. In my mind, the next step would be salary cuts,” North Naples fire Commissioner Jim Burke said.

North Naples has the lowest tax rate of the five independent fire districts, at $1 per $1,000 property value. The fire board isn’t considering a tax rate increase this year, though Commissioner Jim Burke doesn’t exclude that option in coming years.

“Eventually we’re going to have to go to the voters and say, ‘Here’s our options.’ We have a good base of voters, well-informed people, and we’ve got a lot of valuable property we protect. There’s a service you get — what are you willing to cut?” Burke said.

This fiscal year, he added, increasing revenue for his district is unlikely. Instead, further cuts — in the way of slashed salaries across-the-board, including for commissioners — is the likely solution.

“If we don’t want to move on getting rid of any people, which I wouldn’t support, and we have a limit on how much we’ll tap into reserves in a year — all that’s getting close. In my mind, the next step would be salary cuts,” Burke said.

* * * * *

Another option to make ends meet for fire districts is applying for grants, such as with the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program.

Big Corkscrew Island received a SAFER grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for nearly $600,000 in 2010 for four positions through 2013, and likely will apply again later in the year, Plamondon said.

“If we can get some grants and survive these hard times, I think we’ll be OK. It’s just tough right now,” he said.

However, not all districts are inclined to apply for such funding.

“There are quite a few strings attached with grants. You have to be sure to fulfill the conditions,” East Naples’ Bishop said. “The worst thing would be to default on a grant.”

The bigger problem can come when a stop-gap measure like a grant ends, said Jeff Tuscan, a financial consultant hired by the Immokalee fire board who also works with other public agencies in Lee and Collier counties.

“You couldn’t keep the firefighter employed when you were making (more money) and risk that property values continue to drop. You may have to make more drastic cuts when you come out of the grant,” Tuscan said. “If things go up, it’s not an issue. If things go down, you may have to lay off at least those people, if not more.”

* * * * *

An alternative to increased revenues or further cuts is exploring the use of volunteers.

However, of the five districts, only Immokalee is considering heavier reliance on unpaid firefighters to ease the burden of salary and staff cuts. In July, union president Tom Cunningham said there is a possibility the district will be supplementing Immokalee’s current corps of 10 volunteers with an additional 20 to reopen Station 31, which was closed in May following firefighter layoffs.

Big Corkscrew Island, which has four volunteers, won’t expand in that way, said Plamondon, who began as a volunteer with his district’s department in 1988.

“That’s a nice thought,” he said, “but volunteers are not necessary. I’m not sure that a guy working a regular job has the time (for it) ... It’s an insurmountable amount of training and hours you have to put in.”

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