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Date of Issue: April 26, 2007

House vote expected on fire district's impact fee hike

The Florida House of Representatives is expected to vote in the next week on a bill authorizing the West Manatee Fire Rescue District to increase impact fees on new construction.

The bill has cleared all the necessary committees in Tallahassee, including the House Committee on Urban and Local Affairs, the House Government Efficiency and Accountability Council and the House Policy and Budget Council.

The legislation, which district voters endorsed in a referendum last fall, would allow an increase in new construction fees to pay for new facilities and equipment.

The current impact fee schedule, set in 1985, is $100 for new residential construction and $200 for the first 5,000 square feet of new commercial construction.

The proposed fees would be $500 for new residential construction and $980 for 5,000 square feet of new commercial construction. New commercial construction would be charged 25 cents per square foot for construction over 5,000 square feet.

Past impact fee funds have been used to purchase thermal-imaging equipment and laptop computers. Most recently, the fire district used impact fees to buy a fire extinguisher simulator.

Deputy Fire Marshal Kurt Lathrop demonstrated how to use the $13,000 piece of equipment at a WMFR commission meeting April 19 at Station 1 in Holmes Beach.

Lathrop said he will haul the training equipment to restaurants and other businesses to train staff to use extinguishers. The simulator uses propane gas, water and an electronic ignition to start and stop a controlled fire.

"The set up is pretty easy," Lathrop said as he stood on the back lot at the fire station and pressed a button that triggered orange flames on a model stove. "And we've got a trailer so we can take it where we need to go."

Also during the meeting, Chief Andy Price said the process of budgeting for fiscal 2007-08 is under way.

Price estimated that the budget would be about $5.2 million to $5.3 million and not contain any new personnel positions or significant equipment purchases. About 80 percent of the budget is payroll, he said.

The new spending plan will likely include an increase for fuel and possibly an increase for health insurance.

"It's really pretty much status quo," Price said.

About 96 percent of the revenues in the fire district's budget come from assessment fees paid by property owners. The fees are not ad valorem taxes based on property value, but rather flat rates based on the type of property and the size of the building on that property.

The fees can go up based on personal income growth determined by the state for fire districts.

"We've gotten the figure," Price told commissioners last week. "We're limited to what we can raise our rates to - 5.78 percent. That's the limit."

Last year's personal income growth increase was 5.4 percent.

If the commission approves the 5.78 percent increase, owners of a single-family home with about 1,000 square feet will see an increase of about $7 in the assessment rate, to $140. The rate for a single-family home with about 2,000 square feet would increase about $12.

The rate increase will generate an additional $265,000 for the district, which covers 40,000 people and 19,500 parcels of property on the Island, in Cortez and the west Manatee mainland.

Price said projected revenues fall short in the preliminary budget, which means the spending plan will be cut before it goes to the commission.

"We're about $100,000 shy," Price said. "But we will cut. By the time we adopt the budget it will be at a zero variance."

A hearing on the proposed assessment rate will take place at the commission's meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 17, at Station 1, 6001 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.