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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Voters to decide fire tax issue - again

Voters in the West Manatee Fire & Rescue district on Nov. 2 will get to decide once again if they want to impose a millage rate to raise district revenues.

A similar effort by the WMFR has failed twice this year, losing by 149 votes in March 2004 and 49 votes in August voting.

This time, the district is asking for a .5 millage rate, and any further tax increase would have to be approved by voters. The district already raises revenue by an assessment, and that will remain in place.

District officials have said the extra revenue is needed to hire and train 12 firefighters to meet the federal and state standards that require the "two-in, two-out" rule, which calls for two firefighters outside a blazing structure if two firefighters enter to combat the fire. Currently, WMFR district trucks are manned by just three firefighters.

WMFR Deputy Chief Brett Pollock said there are still some misconceptions among the voting public about how the district is funded and why it's asking for the tax.

The district does not receive any funding from city, state or county governments, he said. All revenues are currently raised by the assessment, which is near the limit established by the Florida Legislature.

Additionally, noted Pollock, none of the money from the tax issue will go toward increasing firefighters salaries. Fire services to the district will increase if the measure is passed, and the Nov. 2 referendum is different from the previous two efforts.

The ballot question Nov. 2 would limit the tax to a maximum of .5 mills. A home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 in fire service taxes annually at the maximum rate.

"The safety of our firefighters is paramount and the passage of this referendum not only provides that added safety to them, but it will allow the fire district to continue to provide the level of fire protection the community deserves for a fraction of the property value we protect," Pollock said.

He added that failure to follow the "two-in, two-out" rule could result in a fine of up to $50,000 for the district. He also noted that without the extra firefighter, some burning structures might not be fought from the inside, if not enough firefighters are present to meet the rules.

But the tax is not equal, said Anna Maria City Commissioner Duke Miller.

"I'm all in favor of a better fire department and more firefighters," said Miller. "It's just that an ad valorem tax is not equal for Island property owners compared with those on the mainland."

The WMFR district includes the Island, Cortez, and much of west and northwest Bradenton.

"If a home is valued at $500,000, the owner pays $250 a year," he observed. The owner of a $50,000 mobile home home pays $25 per year. "Do I get 10 times the fire service? It's unfair and egregious."

He also wondered why Manatee County needs 12 fire districts. "The answer is 'you don't,'" Miller claimed.

If the 12 districts would ever consolidate, he predicted some big bucks could be saved on administrative and equipment costs, enough to eliminate the need for ad valorem taxes and increasing assessments. Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota incorporated their fire districts several years ago and saved millions, he contends.

Miller would prefer the district increase revenue by asking the state legislature to raise the annual assessment. "At least that's fair," he said.

This is the third time this year district voters have been hit with the millage question. "When are they going to stop this. Are we going to have to go through this again and again until they win?" Miller said.

"I'm not against a better fire department, just that a tax that is unfair. Raise the assessment," Miller concluded.