Unanimous approval of the West Manatee Fire Rescue District’s annual budget apparently is no longer routine among the five district commissioners.
In a 3-2 vote, commissioners at their Sept. 15 budget hearing approved WMFR Chief Andy Price’s proposed $5.4 million budget for 2011-12, but dissenting Commissioners Jesse Davis and Scott Ricci, as well as several members of the public, expressed dismay with the salary increases in the budget.
The budget, a 2.4 percent increase over the 2010-11 WMFR budget, contains salary increases for staff that will cover the 3 percent of salary that WMFR employees must now contribute by law to their state retirement plans.
Ricci said Price and the district staff and firefighters are “the finest” anywhere and “extremely hardworking,” but he can’t support a budget that raises salaries to cover retirement funding increases ordered by the Florida Legislature.
“This budget makes up for the 3 percent,” Ricci said.
He agreed that firefighters deserve a pay raise, but not at this time. “In this economic situation, we have to tighten our belts,” Ricci said.
Salary and benefits for WMFR staff account for 85.4 percent of the budget, a figure that Holmes Beach resident Robert Heinz said was “off the charts.”
Heinz admonished commissioners for doing what he believes is whatever the fire chief wants.
“All I can see is that you are puppets for the chief. You are a board supposed to be monitoring the district. Where is it going to stop? The fee is raised every year because you can do it,” Heinz said.
Holmes Beach Commissioner Al Robinson, long a critic of the WMFR budget, said Price “gets everything he wants. He makes all the decisions and you rubber-stamp them.”
Robinson also was against the salary increase that recoups the 3 percent retirement deduction.
“It may not sound like much,” but 3 percent of the budget for benefits comes to $136,000.
Price, however, said firefighters have not had a pay raise the past two budget years.
Commissioner Randy Cooper said no one “likes the raise, but we think we can live with it.”
Board Chair Larry Tyler dismissed Heinz’s statement that commissioners are puppets for Price.
“We have sat down with the chief individually and gone over the numbers very carefully. We are not puppets,” he said.
Heinz also said the district should get moving with consolidation of all independent fire districts in Manatee County, not just talk with Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue about a merger.
Tyler said he agreed with consolidation, but some districts “don’t want to listen” to such conversations.
What’s needed, Tyler said, is an independent feasibility study on consolidation. He said he’s tried for years to find funding for the study that he estimated would cost between $150,000 and $200,000, but Manatee County officials have been lukewarm at best to the suggestion that funds come from the county budget.
“But we need someone to tell us if it will work and how to do it,” Tyler said.
Heinz agreed. He said it’s time taxpayers stop funding the 11 or 12 independent fire districts in Manatee County and come up with one body to run the fire service. Somebody needs to step up to the plate with some funding, Heinz indicated.
While not consolidation, merger talks are ongoing with Cedar Hammock, Tyler said, but it’s not an overnight process. Officials from the two districts will meet in a public workshop at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at the CHFR station at 6601 53rd Ave. W., Bradenton.
Tyler cautioned that this is a work session and public input might not be taken at the meeting. This is the first meeting of the two commissions and Tyler said information exchange heads the agenda list.
Among the numerous problems with the merger is that WMFR implements a fee for district residents, while CHFR has both a fee and ad valorem taxes to generate revenue.
No matter what the district boards decide, voters of both districts must validate any merger plan, Tyler advised.
WMFR fees up again
For the 12th consecutive year, the West Manatee Fire Rescue District has raised its fees for fire service to district residents.
In the WMFR 2011-12 budget, the annual base rate for single-family residences, mobile homes and condominiums was raised 3.7 percent, from $159.22 to $165.19 for the first 1,000 square feet.
The base rate for commercial buildings also jumped 3.7 percent, rising from $375.82 for the first 1,000 square feet to $389.81. The base rate for vacant lots rose from $21 to $21.79.
WMFR is at the maximum fee allowed by the Florida Legislature, but can increase the fee to correspond with inflation. An effort by the WMFR to have revenue also come from ad valorem taxes was defeated by voters three times between 2002 and 2007.