MOORE HAVEN — The five Glades County commissioners, among them two new members, devoted a good chunk of their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, to discussing a resolution allowing them to consider imposing a fire rescue services assessment (a non-ad valorem “tax,” which might be better termed a fee”) on county residents, possibly starting next year.
This is the latest development in the years-long saga of trying to find enough money to provide full-time (24/7/365) fire-rescue protection to all areas of the sprawling, rural county. Back in September, the county board by a 4-1 vote approved spending $23,500 total on an update of the fire rescue protection services study last done in 2014. That work is in progress, County Manager Bob Jones told commissioners, with an eye toward establishing a fire assessment for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, 2021.
Tallahassee consultant firm, Government Services Group Inc. (GSG), is well along on Phase 1 of its study, which is performing an analysis and reporting to the board on their findings, for $16,500 including two on-site meetings. They have been meeting with county officials over the past few months, and a report is expected in early 2021, Jones said. “They (GSG) have all the data as of next week, so we should have some information by January,” he stated. The second phase is implementation of the findings (costing $7,000 and including two on-site visits), during which GSG will assist with grant applications to federal and state agencies and the like.
Adoption of the resolution before them Tuesday, County Attorney Richard Pringle explained in his report to the commissioners, does not actually impose the tax; instead it is a “preliminary notification” that the county board intends “to possibly take future official action ... to impose a non-ad valorem assessment for fire services and/or emergency rescue services.” Pringle said it paves the way to go forward in fiscal 2022 if that is the commissioners’ eventual wish; however, the county may do so without any public referendum, although multiple public hearings will be required. He said he’d included fire, EMS and transport services even though the study currently only covers fire protection, so that the board has the option to add those services if it so chooses. Those hearings would occur during the July-to-September budgeting period if the board approves once the study is done.
The Glades County Commission has voted for the past several years on the very same resolution but never completed the process. That, however, may change because of the new commissioners, who have not had much chance to fully express their views about a potential “fee” as yet, since Dec. 8 was their first official full meeting as board members.
Former County Board Vice Chairman Weston Pryor had declined to run again and was replaced by Commissioner Jerry “Gator” Sapp, who won election in the August primary. Pryor was opposed to Municipal Services Taxing Units (MSTUs) (or alternatively, as “Municipal Services Benefit Units or MSBUs)” — although he did vote for the study. The other new commissioner is Tony Whidden of District 1, who replaced former Commissioner Donald Strenth.
Commissioner Donna Storter Long said litigation have been brought over RV parks’ status after the MSBU/MSTU state laws were changed. Attorney Pringle noted that the machinery of these units is under review by state courts due to those lawsuits.
“Just to be clear, it (the resolution) is non-binding, only creating opportunity. I’m not too keen to impose something right now because of the state of economy at the moment,” said Whidden.
Pringle said he was correct. “This is a required step in order to proceed further later on, with no obligations.”