NAPLES — Golden Gate fire officials say they need the money to keep the doors open.
So do their counterparts in East Naples and Immokalee.
But when it comes to increasing the tax rate cap, fire chiefs and fire commissioners have little say in the matter.
Instead, the fate of each district's coffers is in the hands of voters on Jan. 31.
Three of Collier County's five independent fire districts — East Naples Fire Control and Rescue District; Golden Gate Fire Control and Rescue District; and Immokalee Fire Control District — are asking voters to approve a referendum to increase each district's maximum tax rate.
If approved, fire districts would be able to increase the tax rate to help make up for revenue lost because of diminished property values.
"I don't have to remind you of the devastation — not a good word, but we'll use that one — of the tax base in Florida," said Ken Small, financial technical assistance manager at the Florida League of Cities.
"It's obvious these districts have seen severe cuts and ... basically feel like they're willing to ask voters (to increase the cap). No one is trying to do anything undercover, but conditions have changed so much that we're getting desperate," he said.
But asking for help is something two of the districts — Golden Gate and Immokalee — have done at least once before in the past decade.
Golden Gate fire commissioners in October decided to ask voters to temporarily increase the district's tax rate cap. The proposed rate, if approved by voters, would last for five years. The issue asks voters to increase the cap to $2.75 per $1,000 of taxable value.
That's an 83 percent increase from the current rate, which was overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2009, of $1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value.
"No one believed we'd have to come back to the issue and revisit it with the public," Golden Gate fire Chief Robert Metzger said. "But property values have dropped in excess of 50 percent and the relief we gained from the increase to 1.5 was more than outweighed by the drop."
This is part of a continuing series of stories counting down to the Jan. 31 primary election.
Metzger said commissioners decided to revisit the issue because the district doesn't "have the revenue to operate" at its current levels.
Mark Teaters, founder and charter member of the community's Homeowners Association, said he doesn't believe the district needs to raise the tax cap.
"I have serious reservations about allowing them to raise the cap on taxes when I don't feel they did everything to fix what's causing the problem," Teaters said.
It's not just declining property values that's causing the strain. Instead, Teaters said debt service and capital projects also are affecting the bottom line.
Teaters didn't support the tax cap increase in 2009, and said he didn't support it now. He also said some residents aren't pleased with the prospect of having to go back to the voting booth to help the district balance its budget.
"I can tell you there are a lot of people that are really unhappy because they keep coming back to the wallet, they keep coming back and back and back," he said. "They said this is all we need and we will be fine, and here we are again."
Metzger has said if the referendum fails the district will need to take steps to address a shortfall. That could mean the reduction of staffing levels, which would result in longer response times and the closure of one or two of the district's four stations.
Golden Gate voters aren't the only ones heading back to the polls. Immokalee fire commissioners also are counting on voters in their district to raise the tax cap.
But unlike Golden Gate, it's been about a decade since Immokalee voters were asked to pass the hat and raise the tax rate, said Rita Greenberg, Big Corkscrew Island fire chief.
During the summer, Immokalee fire commissioners decided to ask voters to increase the tax rate cap to $3.75 per $1,000 of taxable value. That's a 25 percent increase from the current rate — approved by voters in 2000 — of $3 per $1,000 of taxable value.
The district has experienced a 31 percent decrease in property values over the last three years. That decrease directly affects the amount of property tax dollars brought in each year, said Greenberg, who is serving as Immokalee's interim chief.
Greenberg said the district has 10 vacant positions, with two crews of five people working to keep two stations open, and that all district employees took a 10 percent salary reduction.
"That's the short story," she said.
Greenberg, like Metzger, said if the referendum fails something would need to change to continue providing service to the area. But Greenberg said the change "is not instant."
"We would need to figure it out," she said. "It's hard to predict where the economy would go and a downturn would generate additional layoffs."
Immokalee fire commissioners in May laid off six firefighters because of budget woes. Fire commissioners terminated then-Chief Scott Brige at the same meeting.
But layoffs didn't just happen in Immokalee last year. East Naples fire commissioners in October laid off nine firefighters because of dwindling budgets.
Five of those firefighters were rehired about a month later, but East Naples fire acting Chief Kingman Schuldt said there were no new revenues to support their salaries. Instead the district dipped into the reserves to cover the expenses through September 2012.
The same budget woes that led to layoffs prompted East Naples fire commissioners to ask voters to increase the tax rate cap to $2 per $1,000 of taxable value.
That's a 33 percent increase from the current rate — which Schuldt said has been in place since 1983 — of $1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value."We're in a position to make sure we're financially secure in the future," he said.
While Golden Gate and Immokalee are looking to increase the cap to give them a little leeway so they can raise rates without voter approval if needed, Schuldt said his district is asking for exactly what it needs.
"We don't want to take more money than we need," he said. "We believe if we raise it to 2 that would be sufficient for us. But it's a tough decision, and it's more money out of the pockets of residents."
Janet Vasey, a North Naples resident and member of Collier County's productivity committee, a citizens group that examines financial issues, said she analyzed East Naples' budgets and doesn't believe the district needs to increase taxes to make ends meet.
Vasey said instead of looking to raise taxes, the district should look at reducing costs through salary and benefit reductions.
"I'm very critical," she said. "Unlike the tax request from Golden Gate, this does not have a sunset. This would be forever."
Officials said raising the cap doesn't necessarily mean residents will be saddled with high tax rates. Instead, they say it gives them the flexibility to set taxes at a rate that will bring in the same amount of money as current rates if values continue to decline.
All three districts currently are taxing at the maximum rate allowed.
Still, Schuldt said it's hard to gauge which way the vote is going to go because of public perception.
"I think the biggest challenge is it's a mixed bag," he said. "Some people are for it and some people are against it. We're laying our budget numbers out and we're being as honest as we can."
Schuldt, like Metzger and Greenberg, said it's hard to tell what will happen if the referendum fails. Schuldt said the district would likely have to "go into deficit spending" to maintain the status quo.
But dipping into reserves isn't a long-term option and Small, with the Florida League of Cities, said there isn't much left for fire districts to do than to appeal to the voters.
"I don't believe they have other resources (available) to them," Small said.
By the numbers
District.......................Current rate............................Proposed rate cap
East Naples......$1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value.........$2 per $1,000
Golden Gate.....$1.50 per $1,000 of taxable value.......$2.75 per $1,000
Immokalee........$3 per $1,000 of taxable value............$3.75 per $1,000