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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Sen. Bennett: 'Think outside the box' for fire cost savings

"If you don't control your own destiny," Florida Sen. Mike Bennett told a group of 60 Manatee County fire chiefs and commissioners Friday, "someone else will do it for you."

Bennett's remarks came at a meeting to address looming financial shortfalls predicted by West Manatee Fire and Rescue District commissioners in upcoming years. The district, which includes Anna Maria Island, Cortez and northwest Bradenton, has been reeling under new state firefighting mandates, particularly that two firefighters be outside a burning building before two can enter to fight a fire.

In an effort to budget for the "two-in, two-out" rule, West Manatee attempted to sway voters three times in 2004 to allow an additional tax to levied based on property value in addition to the existing assessment method of raising funds. All three referendums were defeated by the voters.

West Manatee commissioners had then approached Bennett and the local legislative delegation in an effort to have a special bill introduced to the Florida Legislature that would allow a greater assessment to be levied. Bennett, and other members of the local delegation, rejected the proposal.

"The legislative delegation is not going to Tallahassee and try to pass a bill to raise taxes that the citizens have said three times they don't want," Bennett flatly told West Manatee commissioners and the other fire officials.

He suggested that the 13 county fire districts each appoint a person to meet and work on devising cost-cutting measures. "You need to work on best practices. You need to look at cost of service. You will need to look at each others financial statements so you can compare with everyone else, and compare costs with everyone else.

"I suggest you check your ego at the door and work on holding down the costs for the people in Manatee County," Bennett added. "I believe there are more fire districts in Manatee County than anywhere else in the state, and I'm afraid someone will introduce some fire district consolidation legislation that will hurt you. Everyone wants the lowest cost and the highest level of service."

Bennett said he would facilitate such meetings or provide research as needed.

"The answer may be consolidation, or it may not, but you have to start talking about it," he added.

West Manatee Fire Chief Andy Price said the district's assessment method of raising funds was inadequate for the current makeup of the district. "Unlike other districts in the county, we're almost built out," Price said. "We've got no growth and we're at our tax cap, which will only let us keep going as-is. We have interlocal agreements with neighboring fire districts, but we're at the west end of the county, and it's a long way to go in one direction, and the time element [of getting another truck out] is our problem, especially in Anna Maria."

Price added that up to 85 percent of the fire district's budget is comprised of salaries for firefighters.

Longboat Key Fire Chief Julius Halas was fire chief in Sarasota when that city and Sarasota County consolidated services several years ago. The city-county pairing was spurred   by a relatively stagnant growth within the city while the county was seeing a population boom.

With city firefighting services paid for through property tax revenue, the city was looking at up to a 6-mill tax levy for fire services. After joining with the county, the costs were spread out and the county tax hit dropped to less than 3 mill, Halas said.

"I don't know how to solve your problem short-term," Bennett concluded, "but you're going to have to start thinking outside of the box."