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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Fire district in good financial shape

Despite three defeats at the polls last year for a property tax to increase its revenues, the West Manatee Fire and Rescue District is in good shape financially, according to auditor Ed Leonard.

Leonard told the WMFR board Feb. 17 that revenues increased during the last fiscal year by $126,000 more than anticipated, while expenses were $97,000 less than budgeted.

The district's long-term debt is only $238,000, while the retirement fund for firefighters hired after 1996 contains more than $1 million. Nearly 85 percent ($3.89 million) of district revenues are for personnel services, he noted.

All of those figures show "good fiscal management," said Leonard, and the district is exercising "good, strong controls" in its accounting practices. The district is in a "good financial position" at the present time, he concluded.

But WMFR Chief Andy Price has previously sounded a note of caution when discussing future revenues and manpower.

He mantains that the district can be financially sound under the current assessment for only a few more years.

In addition, the district eventually has to implement the state-mandated "two-in, two-out" rule for firefighters at the scene of a structure fire. Price has estimated the district will need to add 12 firefighters to comply with this regulation, and the board tried to fund the cost of the additional firefighters through an ad valorem tax.

Voters, however, defeated the district's ad valorem tax proposal three times in 2004, and the local legislative delegation in Tallahassee has refused to seek an increase of the current fire assessment for the district.

State Sen. Mike Bennett has told Manatee County's 12 fire districts they need to consolidate, but Price said Feb. 17 there is nothing new on that issue beyond the January meeting the various fire chiefs and board members had with Bennett.

Without the additional firefighters and funding, Price has said there will be occasions when firefighters won't be able to enter a structure fire until backup arrives. WMFR fire trucks currently carry only three personnel when responding to a call.

Price and the board have previously discussed the possibility of closing one of the district's three active fire stations to meet the "two-in, two-out" rule, possibly the Cortez Road station.