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Fire chief presents 'wish list' at first budget workshop
July 12, 2017

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For Fire Chief Robert Dilallo, this is the first budget he has had to construct for the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District. While he realizes there are a lot of needs for his workers, he also recited the same mantra.

"We're going to have to make some cuts," Dilallo said.

That was evident during the first budget workshop at Fire Station 104 on July 11, when the chief presented his 2017-18 budget to the fire commissioners and other powers that be.

The nearly $27 million budget is right now more of a wish list than a binding document - and good thing because it would require the district to pull almost $2.3 million from its reserves to pay for it.

With a fire district in need of new vehicles, protective clothing, a better website and other things, Dilallo is going to have to make some tough choices.

"We came in with our needs and wants and this is the first step, bringing to the board what we need operationally and what we anticipate our revenue and what our options are," he said. "We will slowly whittle this thing down."

The district, which changed from an ad valorem taxing methodology to a flat special assessment two years ago, has not done much in the several years following the recession. Only in the last two fiscal years did it finally purchase some engines and rescues.

Dilallo said the big need this year is staff vehicles as many of them are more than 10 years old and well past their prime.

"The newest staff vehicles we have are 2007s. We have frontline staff vehicles with 170,000 miles on them," he said. "At some point, we're going to have to cut this budget because we do not have revenue to meet those needs. It's going to cut into our reserves."

More than half the budget will go toward employee salaries and benefits, Dilallo said. The former of which will include bumps in salary for the first time since 2008, with their incentives frozen until only the past couple years.

Health insurance has been slated to increase 7 percent, with the possibility that it could go as high as 12.6 percent unless negotiated.

That means some things are going to have to be cut unless revenue can be found. Commissioner Robert Anderson suggested a user fee for those who actually need the service.

"Let's not put this on the back of citizens, but on those who use it. We can generate between $500,000 and $1 million," he said.

Commissioner Linda Carter suggested going to a "stand-by readiness" methodology as a way to get more money from those who own lots and pay far less in assessments than home or business owners.

"We have to look at the vacant lot owners, not the residents. They pay $21 and get the same equipment as a house fire," she said.

Dilallo said such a measure would require putting it up for referendum, for which it is too late for this fiscal year.

He noted that by changing banks and seeking more grants, he could be more creative in saving taxpayers money, such as by financing new protective clothing for the firefighters over five years at low interest and using the older clothing in reserve.

Overall, it was a long but productive first budget workshop.

"We're going to go back and make more cuts and see where we could cut from there," Dilallo said.

The second budget workshop was scheduled for Aug. 29 at 4 p.m. at Fire Station 104. However, officials reported today that it has been canceled. A new date was not immediately available.

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