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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Third vote planned for fire district ad valorem tax

Some people say "the third time's the charm."

Others say it's "three strikes and you're out."

Either way, the West Manatee Fire and Rescue District board of commissioners plans to find out the answer in November.

Board members in an emergency meeting Sept. 2 voted unanimously to bring the ad valorem tax issue back to district voters in the November general elections. It would be the third time this year the board has taken the issue to the voters. This time, however, the board will ask for a maximum .5 millage rate, as opposed to the 1.0 requested in August.

WMFR Chief Andy Price said the emergency meeting was needed because the deadline for the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Office to receive ballot measures for the Nov. 2 elections was 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 3.

Otherwise, said Price, the district would have to wait until 2006 for another general election, or spend $25,000 to hold a special election in 2005.

Board members agreed that because the ad valorem tax question lost by 49 votes in August, the count was not a clear enough mandate from the people to give up the fight, although board member Larry Tyler had some initial reservations.

Tyler said he had a "real problem" voting to place the issue before the voters again, because "the voters have said 'no' twice" in the past year. The same issue lost in March 2004 by 124 votes. Had the measure been soundly defeated, "We wouldn't be having this discussion," said Tyler, and other board members agreed.

But it was a very close vote and the district needs to meet the new staffing requirements, or it may not be able to fight some fires, acknowledged Tyler.

The people who voted against the measure "are the people who don't want us to have the money to protect them," he said.

Capt. Barry Brooks of the WMFR agreed. "We are the most important people in the world for 20 minutes, then we are forgotten," he said. Price noted that if the .5-mill tax is approved and the district only needs a .3- or .4-mill rate to meet its staffing requirements under the state-mandated "two-in, two-out" rule, the lower rate will be implemented. "We'll only use what we need," he pledged.

Price and board members believe there will be a larger voter turnout in November for the presidential election and that should clearly decide the issue. Only 33 percent of the district's 23,446 registered voters turned out Aug. 31, while traditionally, more than 50 percent of voters cast a ballot during a presidential election.

Board chairman Jesse Davis said it looks like a "lose, lose situation." If the board votes to try again in November, it will alienate those opposed to an ad valorem tax. If the board decides not to pursue the issue, there will be some fires where the crews can't go inside to fight the blaze until backup arrives.

Price said that without the funding the ad valorem tax would generate, the district would have to look at the real possibility of closing one of its three stations to meet the state staffing requirements.

There was also some confusion on whether or not the board could even hold an emergency meeting without the standard 24-hour public notice.

Price said WMFR district attorney Alan Prather said the board could meet to determine if an emergency meeting was necessary. If the board agreed it was an emergency, it could make a decision now and hold an advertised public meeting on the emergency issue as soon as possible. Price said Prather indicated that the board could change its decision at that meeting, which will be held Sept. 16 following a short 6 p.m. tax appeal hearing.

The board agreed that facing a 24-hour deadline to place the measure before voters again, or waiting one or two years for another election, constituted an emergency meeting.

One thing was certain after the board voted to send the issue to the voters once again: Another defeat will mean the end of the ad valorem tax measure in the district for some time.

Is the third time a lucky charm? Or is it "One, two, three strikes you're out?"