The West Manatee Fire Rescue District board voted — reluctantly — at its May 19 meeting to approve an increase in the annual assessment paid by district residents for fire service.
But the board rejected WMFR Chief Andy Price’s request for a 4.13 percent increase, the maximum allowed by law. The board, 3-1, voted to increase the assessment by 3.75 percent. Commissioner Scott Ricci voted against the increase, saying he preferred a 3.5 percent increase or none at all.
Price said he was concerned how to meet the annual operating budget requirements in a few years time without the benefit of ad valorem taxes. District voters have defeated that idea for WMFR revenues three times since 2004.
Commissioner Jesse Davis said that during difficult economic times the fire district has to “live within its means.” He said he didn’t know how WMFR was “going to make it” but everything, especially fuel, is increasing.
Commissioner Randy Cooper noted that WMFR spent nearly $1.7 million on buying and remodeling a new administrative headquarters and is spending $307,000 to remodel and enlarge Station No. 1 in Holmes Beach.
“Is this a good time to go to the maximum requested?” he asked.
Price said firefighters have not had a raise in two years and salaries are now below the area average. About 80 percent of the WMFR’s $5.5 million annual budget goes toward personnel costs, including salaries and benefits.
With a 3.75 percent increase in the annual assessment, Price said homeowners would likely pay about $12 more annually, while business owners’ costs might go up $15 to $18. The assessment increase depends upon the square footage.
The present base rate for residences, mobile homes and condominiums is $159.22 for the first 1,000 square feet, then 9.4 cents for each additional square foot. A 4.13 percent increase would have put the base assessment at $165.80.
Commercial buildings pay $375.72 in base assessment, while a vacant lot pays $21.
Davis said the district is up against issues it can’t control, such as annexation of areas by Bradenton, few areas for development and ever-increasing fuel and utility costs.
He agreed that Station No. 1 and No. 2 need repairs and remodeling, but he didn’t know where the money would come from. “What are we to do?” Davis asked.
Price said revenues are not going to get any better and meeting the budget will be harder in a few years. “It’s going to be a struggle.”
Ricci said the district needs to talk with Bradenton officials about coverage on Perico Island, which is in Bradenton, although the closest fire station is in the WMFR district.
WMFR gets nothing for being the first-responder in that area, Ricci observed.
Perico Island and some areas in northwest Bradenton formerly were in the WMFR district, but have been annexed by Bradenton the past decade.
“The city of Bradenton has been ripping us off,” said Davis. “Every time they take from us, we lose and we have no growth area.”
Holmes Beach City Commissioner Al Robinson said WMFR has more than $3 million in its reserve account, yet is raising the assessment. “It’s insanity,” he said.
Robinson also noted that Ross Built Construction of Holmes Beach was awarded the $500,000 contract to remodel the administration building on Third Avenue West, and objected to the same company receiving the $300,000 contract to repair and remodel Station No. 1. He questioned why the station needs remodeling.
Ricci said a lot of the $307,000 remodeling of Station No. 1 is a waste of money, especially a $33,000 sprinkler system in a fire station.
Other board members disagreed and voted 3-1 to award the contract to Ross Built, with Ricci voting no.