Fire commission opts for incremental increase

West Manatee Fire Rescue meeting promotion
Nikki Adkins pins her husband Josh’s new badge on him as he’s promoted to firefighter first class during the May 15 West Manatee Fire Rescue meeting. - Kristin Swain | Sun

BRADENTON – Fire assessment rates are going up in West Manatee Fire Rescue’s District for the coming fiscal year. The 2 percent increase, which passed commissioners with a 3-2 vote, averages out to less than $5 per year for most residential homeowners in the district.

When commissioners entered the public hearing to set the district’s rate for the 2018-19 fiscal year, they had two options on the table. The first option proposed by Chief Tom Sousa and district administrative staff was a zero percent increase in rates with $1.5 million being pulled from reserves to fund capital projects. More than $1 million of that amount was saved by the district in reserves and earmarked for special projects, such as replacing aging air packs for firefighters and purchasing new gear.

Sousa said he anticipates the district’s operating expenses to increase 2.9 percent over the next two years and, with the district in a bargaining year with the firefighter’s union, the possibility is there for employee expenses also to rise.

The district’s SAFER grant, which is currently covering the cost of three firefighter positions, expires this fall, though Sousa said he will be reapplying for the grant. With costs to the district expected to rise, under the zero percent increase this coming fiscal year, Sousa said the next one, 2019-20, could see a 4 percent increase to district property owners.

The second option, the one commissioners voted to adopt, is an incremental increase of 2 percent in 2018-19 and a potential 2 percent increase in 2019-20.

“We’re not committing to next year yet; we’re just showing you what it could be,” Sousa said to commissioners.

“If we don’t need this money in the current budget year, I’m not in favor of collecting it,” Commissioner George Harris said. Harris and fellow Commissioner Al Robinson voted against the 2 percent increase.

“It seems to me that this is very risky to not have any increase this year and have an unknown increase next year,” Commissioner Randy Cooper said.

Commissioner David Bishop said he voted in the previous year against raising rates, believing the district would get the funds it needed from pending grant applications, and was disappointed when those funds never materialized. He worried that voting against any type of rate increase this year could put the district in a bad financial position the following year.

The 2 percent increase represents about $138,000 in additional funds to the district through the fire assessment.

Commissioner Larry Jennis said he feels if the district didn’t raise the rate and suffered unforeseen expenses it could place a serious financial burden on the district and taxpayers in the next year.

“We have expenses we know are rising,” he said.

Administration building

With the sale of the district’s administration building to The Oasis School still pending without a closing date set, commissioners discussed what to do with the almost $700,000 in funds estimated to come into the district. There was some discussion of earmarking the funds for a new administration building or using them to pay for the district’s rented office space, rather than dumping them into a general fund. The sale of the building is expected to close no later than July 5.

Commissioners will be hosting a facilities workshop prior to their June 19 meeting to discuss the possibilities of renting and purchasing a new administration space.

Lease talks are still ongoing with nearby Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, where district leaders plan to temporarily house administrative staff while decisions about a permanent home are made. Sousa said the lease for office space at the church property will become effective on the date of closing for the administration building sale.

Dissolving the district

With the sale of the administration building and Sousa’s contract with the district renewed for only three years, Harris suggested commissioners consider looking at any available options to merge WMFR with another local fire district.

“I think this is something we need to consider,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to replace a fire chief. With the chief potentially retiring in three years and the district’s administration building gone, he said it puts WMFR in an excellent merger position.

No other commissioners commented on the idea.