MOORE HAVEN -- A lively discussion took place Aug. 24 during a public hearing segment of the Glades County Board of County Commissioner’s meeting concerning fire protection services.
Public input was the final step before commissioners would move forward with a plan to increase those services throughout the county and Moore Haven.
Based on a study by Tallahassee-based Government Services Group, commissioners proposed taxing on every property in the county and Moore Haven. Although exceptions haven’t been determined yet, it was already agreed that pole barns and trailers will not be taxed.
The county has been grappling with the issue for the past nine years according to Chairman Tim Stanley, who said he’s voted against it twice in the past but felt the time had come to resolve the issue.
“Everybody is going to pay taxes on this,” he said. “We cannot continue to not have fire services.”
Residential dwelling units would be taxed at $121 annually, non-residential units at 4-cents per square foot and vacant land at $17.55 per tax parcel.
Residents were notified by mail about the proposed resolution prior to the hearing held at the Doyle Conner Building.
Most residents and business owners attending were not in favor of the tax, most saying the residential tax would be too high for many residents, particularly those on fixed incomes.
Others who lived in communities that had fire services or depended on Hendry County for help felt it wasn’t fair they be taxed again for something they won’t necessarily use themselves.
Business owners said the additional taxes would put stress on their operations, which in some cases are already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One said this new tax would be added to the $13,000 she pays annually for her business.
“You’re killing us,” she said.
GSG consultant Sandy Walker conducted the study for the county, gathering and analyzing data of the entire county including the city of Moore Haven.
The rates were broken down by the percentage of calls for emergency services, with 73.1% of calls coming from residences, 18.93% from non-residential and 9.71% for vacant land parcels.
The residential tax is per dwelling unit, she said, that includes multi and single-family residences and mobile homes.
She assured attendees that the $121 tax could go down at any time but could not increase without going through the whole process again.
“This is an annual decision,” she said. “The same as when setting the millage rate.”
For property owners who own a land parcel next to their residence, Walker said it may be possible to combine those two to only pay the residential tax, but then they would lose that should they choose to build on the vacant lot in the future.
Rates for vacant parcels reflected that the Department of Forestry is called in for fires on large parcels, so local fire services may not be utilized.
Mobile homes in parks are taxed on a per-unit basis because there are no Florida statues telling counties how to charge RV parks, she said. Those are taxed like hotels and motels as non-residential entities.
“It doesn’t go to the people who rent the spaces,” she said. “It goes to the park owner.”
Walker suggested the county may have an option of offering hardship exemptions for residents living on a fixed income.
County officials had the chance to chime in, with County Manager Bob Jones in support of the resolution saying a new facility will save lives when minutes matter. Jones is also a paramedic and has first-hand experience with emergency situations in the county.
“I can tell you from experience that the farther you are away from that treatment and your condition is worse, then the less chance you have of making it.”
Commissioners agreed with Jones, but some didn’t think now may not be the right time to move forward, especially as the county is grappling with how it is going to manage the new minimum wage increase which will reach $15/hour by 2026.
With the large number of retirees in the area, there were concerns about how those on fixed incomes would manage the tax.
Commissioners voted 5-0 to continue the discussion at the next public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 7 which will be held at the Glades County Board of Commissioners Board Room at 6 p.m.