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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Fire protection costs will rise if ad valorem tax issue passes

The annual assessment for residents of the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District will remain in effect, even if district voters approve a measure March 9 allowing the district to collect revenue with an ad valorem tax, WMFRD Chief Andy Price said. The story in the Feb. 25 issue of The Islander had indicated otherwise.

"We've never said that the ad valorem will replace the assessment," said Price."We are only asking voters to approve our ability to apply the ad valorem" to meet needed funding increases.

But the additional money generated by ad valorem taxes is for a specific purpose, he said.

The district needs the funding to meet the new Florida and National Fire Protection Association requirement of "two in, two out" firefighters on hand to enter a burning building.

At present, WMFR has only enough firefighters to send three people on a fire truck for a fire. The district needs an additional 12 firefighters, Price said, to meet the new requirements.

Under the new state law, two firefighters have to be stationed outside a burning structure before two can enter the building to fight or investigate the fire, unless someone is trapped inside the blaze. Firefighters can then enter the building to effect a rescue.

Without the additional firefighter, there could be a situation where a WMFR unit arrives at a structure fire on the north end of the Island that should be fought from inside, but firefighters are forced to remain outside waiting for backup from the mainland. That could take up to 10 or 12 minutes, possibly more, in some cases, said Price.

"We hope that never happens, but some people said we'd never have a condo fire and we did, and some people said we'd never lose someone in a fire, and we did," he observed.

He also noted that the district is not growing, unlike East Manatee, where new houses and subdivisions spring up almost overnight, thus increasing the revenue for those fire districts.

"We're pretty well built out in West Manatee," Price said.

Additionally, the City of Bradenton has recently annexed large portions of areas that were in the WMFRD. Properties in those areas now pay fire assessments and any ad valorem tax for fire service to Bradenton.

Price is well aware that the total amount a property owner pays for fire protection will increase if the ad valorem issue passes.

And as an Island resident who grew up on Anna Maria, he knows that Island real estate values are much higher than some areas of the district on the mainland.

Price said if the measure passes, he will propose a millage of about 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed evaluation, a .5 millage rate. That should generate about $1.5 million in additional revenue for the district, he said.

With that rate, a homeowner in the district with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 for the fire district ad valorem tax, plus the annual assessment of $104 if the home is under 1,000 square feet. Price said that the assessment amount increases proportionatley for residences with square footage above 1,000 square feet.

Price noted that the Cedar Hammock Fire District already has a 1.0 millage rate, while the Southern Manatee Fire District ad valorem fire tax rate is .8 mills.

Residents in the Braden River Fire District are being asked to approve an ad valorem tax on March 9, as are those in the Englewood Fire District in Sarasota County.

On Anna Maria Island, however, few, if any, Island homes are valued at $200,000 or less.

One Island property owner, who asked not to be identified, noted that he pays $490 a year now as an assessment. With his property valued at $800,000, he'll pay an additional $400 in ad valorem taxes just to support the fire district.

"The Island, with just one-fourth of the people in the district, will be paying an unfair share of the tax revenues collected for the entire district because of our high property values," the owner said.

"I'm all for the extra firefighters," he said, "I just wish there was an equitable way to distribute the cost."