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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Fire district tries again

Voters in the West Manatee Fire and Rescue District will be asked again on Aug. 31 to approve a measure giving the district ad valorem tax authority to increase revenues. The district is proposing a 1-mill cap in the ballot language, but anticipates it would only need a .5 mill rate to meet its requirements, according to WMFR Chief Andy Price.

A similar proposal calling for a maximum 3.75 millage rate was defeated by district voters on March 9 by 128 votes out of 7,808 cast. Voters at the Mt. Vernon polling station on Cortez Road defeated the measure by 166 votes.

But a lot of people were unsure what they were voting for then, Price indicated, and many thought the district was asking for a 3.75 millage rate.

That"s not the case, and this time around, Price has taken pains and some expense to inform voters that the measure places a 1-mill cap on the tax. Any change in that millage rate would have to be approved by voters. Price was confident the district would only need a .5 rate, however.

With a .5-mill rate, a homeowner in the district with a house valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $100 annually for fire service protection.

Price said the district needs the funding to meet new Florida rules and regulations on staffing and training, primarily the "two-in, two-out" rule.

That means at least two firefighters must wait outside a burning building before two firefighters can enter the structure to help extinguish the blaze. At present, WMFR has only enough staff for three firefighters on each truck. The first firefighting unit on the scene of any fire must wait for enough backup before entering a building.

The new Florida Firefighter Occupational Health and Safety Act also requires firefighters to have at least 160 hours of instruction and certification before they can be involved in any firefighting activities, Price noted.

One example of the lack of enough firefighters was in the Waterfront Restaurant fire in Anna Maria March 17. Because the first WMFR unit to arrive on the scene had only three firefighters, none could enter the burning structure until backup arrived. The fire had to be contained from outside the structure until other units and personnel arrived and that resulted in more damage to the interior than would have happened with four firefighters on board the first response truck.

"Imagine," said Price, "if this was your home burning and we had to wait outside while the house burned down."

"We presently have three firefighters on duty at each of our three stations" each shift. "Even with mutual aid response from surrounding districts, we still cannot meet the staffing and response-time requirements."

The staffing issue is being faced by fire service providers "across the country," and in Manatee County by other fire districts. The districts of Southern Manatee, Cedar Hammock and East Manatee recently placed the ad valorem issue before its respective voters and it was approved in all three communities.

"They are now in the process of hiring the additional firefighters and a staff and implementing the changes necessary" to meet the new standards, Price noted.

"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 district. 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 noted that the Cedar Hammock Fire District already has a 1-mill rate, while the Southern Manatee Fire District ad valorem fire tax rate is .8 mills.

Great idea, said Anna Maria City Commissioner Duke Miller, except that it"s not fair to Island residents.

"There are no homes on this Island valued at $200,000," observed Miller. "This is just not fair. Why should we pay the same rate as a homeowner in Bradenton with a $100,000 home? Do we get fives times the fire service?" he asked.

"Don"t get me wrong. I"m all for increased fire protection. I just believe the old method of assessment was fair, while the ad valorem isn"t."

Miller also suggested that consolidating the county"s 12 fire districts might save a few million dollars of taxpayer"s money annually, rather than asking voters to fund government waste.

"Or, go to the state and ask for an increase in the assessment. At least that"s fair," he said.

"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," Miller claimed.

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

Holmes Beach City Commissioner Rich Bohnenberger, an ex-fireman, agreed.

"Personally, I"m opposed to the tax. I think fire districts should be looking at consolidation" as a means of saving money, he observed.

Manatee County has 10 fire districts plus the City of Bradenton and Longboat Key fire departments.

"That"s a lot of administration. I was a fireman in Philadelphia for more than 20 years and we had one fire department that served about four million people," he said.

If passed, the ad valorem tax will be in addition to the annual fire district assessment.