MOORE HAVEN -- An unpopular tax proposal for much needed fire services in Glades County was resolved by the Glades County Board of County Commissioners during a public hearing Sept. 7.
After nine years struggling with how to increase and improve services for the lowest burden to taxpayers, commissioners voted to drop the latest version of a fire services resolution and not pass the fire tax in a 5-0 vote.
Commissioner Tony Whidden made the motion, seconded by Commissioner Jerry Sap.
While community members at the public hearing agreed there was a need for more fire protection in the county, most did not agree with the proposed tax rates of $121 annually for residential dwelling units, $17.55 per parcel of vacant land and 4-cents per square-foot for non-residential properties.
Some community members who are or had been firefighters said there aren’t enough firefighters and equipment to cover the county. Some communities experience long response times because there is not a nearby station.
Over the years the number of volunteer firefighters has diminished significantly, further stressing the system.
“This is not so much a fire tax to me as it is saving lives,” Neil Chapman of Moore Haven said.
Business owners said the tax burden would force some to leave the county and prevent other businesses from wanting to move here.
At the same time, there were concerns the current system may be a deterrent to businesses considering Hendry County.
Residents felt the proposed tax was too high for those living on fixed incomes or experiencing challenging financial circumstances and unfair to those living near a fire station.
Some suggested a more equitable tax rate, charging less for properties closer to existing fire stations and more for those living farther out.
Moore Haven resident Diane Foligno supported the resolution, suggesting the current service may be a negative factor to the county’s growth, which she said has been declining for years.
“When is the day going to come when we can afford this?” she said. “We’re never going to afford it. It’s the cheapest way we can go to get these services.”
The approximate $892,000 in taxes the county would receive would support six firefighters for fiscal year 2021-2022.
If approved, the county would not have to rely on Okeechobee support, saving about $100,000.
Any exemptions included would reduce the amount and if the county fell short of its goal, it would have to make up the difference from its budget or file liens against delinquent properties.
County Attorney Richard Pringle said Moore Haven can opt into the program if it created its own ordinance.
Chairman Tim Stanley said lowering the taxes to $90 for residential, 3-cents per square-foot for non-residential and $13 for vacant land would raise about $598,000.
“Which is enough to hire six firemen,” he said. “I won’t support anything higher than that.”
He said the $2.6 million the county received from the CARES Act Fund would help take some of the burden off taxpayers by funding other improvements they would otherwise have to pay for.