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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Fire district to try again

Members of the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District board and WMFR Chief Andy Price conducted a post-mortem March 18 on the 128-vote failure of the proposed ad valorem tax initiative for the district.

Put another way, said Price, the issue would have passed if 65 people had changed their votes.

But Price and the board aren't giving up.

The day after the defeat, said Price, a number of people who voted against the measure called him and said they would have voted "yes" if they had understood that the district wasn't asking for a 3.75 millage rate, just that that figure would be the maximum the district could implement.

"Once they understood we only needed a .5 rate, they said they would have voted for it," the chief said. "Other people called and said they were for us, just against the 3.75 rate."

He also heard from some voters who thought the district was getting a slice of the half-cent sales tax increase, which also was defeated by the voters.

Price said if the measure is brought to the voters again, it should not be with a 3.75 mill cap, but something like a 1.0 cap, as the Braden River Fire District sought, and won, in March.

"People won't support the 3.75 figure," he said.

Board member Larry Tyler agreed, and suggested the next ballot ask for a 1.0 mill cap.

"And we may never have to go above a .5 rate," Tyler noted.

Price said it wasn't the Island that defeated the measure, but the vote in the Mt. Vernon precinct off Cortez Road was nearly 2 to 1 against, so the WMFR district has to do a better job of informing people there of what the proposal entails.

"We tried to speak to each homeowner association in our district, but that association never invited us," he observed. "We have to do a better job of informing people next time."

He said he heard after the vote that there was an active campaign among some of the property owners in the district against the ad valorem initiative.

Price also proposed a study group of fire district personnel and private individuals - both for and against the measure - who might provide input for a better campaign to educate the people.

Other suggestions included media advertising, direct mailing and additional press releases.

The chief said the local media did a decent job of reporting on the issue, but a press release sent to the Bradenton Herald was never printed, and that paper never covered any of the meetings where the ad valorem issue was discussed.

Price has said that the $1.5 million generated by a .5 millage rate in the district would be used to hire 12 additional firefighters to meet the state requirement of "two-in, two-out" for a structural fire.

Currently, only three firefighters are on any dispatched WMFR unit. By law, said Price, a minimum of two firefighters can enter a burning building, but there must also be a minimum of two personnel outside at the same time.

Until backup arrives and they can enter the building to take the offensive, the three firefighters who arrive first on the scene can only fight the fire defensively.

That was the case at the Waterfront Restaurant fire March 17 in Anna Maria (see separate story). The first unit on the scene had to wait eight minutes until backup arrived, before they could enter the building and get at the source of the blaze.

Until then, they could only fight the fire from outside the restaurant.

The board agreed unanimously to bring the ad valorem tax issue back to the district voters on the November ballot.