Chief Paul Anderson explains funding plans for I.F.D. ( Immokalee Bulletin/Patty Brant)
Fire Chief Paul Anderson discussed his department’s chronic lean budgets at the Town Hall meeting October 8 with Collier County Commissioner Tim Nance. He reminded the audience of the department’s tough fiscal situation over the past several years and laid out a plan to make the future easier. Several years ago the budget became an immediate problem when several firefighters had to be laid off. Since then, the department has received federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grants allowing it to retain six firefighters who had been laid of, and continued to face an uncertain future. IFD was also able to hire nine more firefighters, making it possible to staff each of three shifts with 7-10 personnel. The fire district’s ad valorem tax revenue increased approximately $260,000, allowing pay raises included the following: • All employees received a two percent cost of living adjustment in pay. • Additional incentive pay categories were added for firefighters to receive additional pay for specific certifications that they hold above Firefighter and EMT. • New positions were created to allow for supervision, chain of command within the organization, and an incident command structure, which resulted in promotions and associated pay increases for many firefighters; these positions included Lieutenants, Battalion Captains (Shift Commander), and Engineers (Driver/Pump Operator). • The Deputy Fire Chief position was brought back after being eliminated during the economic crisis. There are now 30 full-time shift firefighters (10 on each of three shifts), three part-time firefighters to fill in for full-time personnel leave time, and 10 volunteer firefighters. The department is still actively recruiting for additional volunteer firefighters The chief noted that the Immokalee Fire District has more tax-exempt properties than any other district in Southwest Florida, which is why the fire department budget is so lean. Tax exempt parcels include government, school and church-owned properties. One outstanding such property is Ave Maria University and its housing. The church owns 32 townhouses in that community - all of which are off the tax roles. There are also government housing properties like FarmWorker Village and public schools that fit into that category, He said the ad valorem millage rate for those currently paying property taxes over the $50,000 Homestead Exemption would decrease, balancing out the proposed fire assessment fee. A special assessment would help fund the Immokalee Fire Department and would reduce the department’s reliance on property taxes. Residents living in apartments do not pay ad valorem property taxes and, therefore, do not contribute to the fire department’s budget. He believes a fairer arrangement would be for every property to be included in a fire assessment fee with rates adjusted so everyone would pay their fair share. All properties would be subject to either ad valorem taxes or the fire assessment. The only exemption would be for church sanctuaries. According to information provided by Chief Anderson, at this time no ad valorem taxes are paid on 60 percent of the total property value in the Immokalee Fire Control District. That means that just 40 percent of the property owners are funding the district. But the fire assessment plan, once worked out, would have to be approved by the voters with exemptions decided by the county commission. If Chief Anderson is successful, the result will be that everyone will pay for fire protection. The economic outlook for supporting the fire department is based on property values rising sufficiently, Chief Anderson said, and the economy does seem to be making a comeback. The state will be studying a fire assessment for the Immokalee district with the intent of combining ad valorem taxes and the fire assessment to fund the department.