Back

Fire board, chief discuss possible cuts to proposed budget
August 11, 2017

Share

The Lehigh Acres fire board's second budget workshop focused on ways to trim the nearly $27 million budget that has been proposed for the fire district's 2017-18 fiscal year.

Last month, Fire Chief Robert Dilallo presented the budget - referred to more as a wish list - at the first workshop. The initial proposal would require the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District to pull almost $2.3 million from its reserves to pay for it. On Aug. 8, the board met again to discuss cuts.

Dilallo announced that they found ways to decrease some operating expenditures by finding creative alternatives to fund areas, such as staff vehicles, radios, bunker gear and the lease of a brush truck.

He explained that the district needs to purchase an ARFF brush truck that can be used to handle major brush fires during season. A refurbished brush truck would cost $275,000 and last about nine years.

"Normally, these trucks are extremely expensive to purchase outright, so we are looking at the possibility of leasing the truck during the six months of the year when we need it," Dilallo said.

He explained that a leased truck would cost $30,000 during season for six months.

"The lease will allow the fire district to save money in the end," Dilallo said.

Commissioner Linda Carter and the others agreed with the change.

Dilallo also addressed an increase in the district's budget for protective gear.

"Currently, we have no backup gear," he said. "Each employee needs a minimum of two sets - one for fighting fires and another set for first-response calls."

One suggested solution was to purchase "combination gear" for each firefighter, which would bring down the long-term cost of bunker gear. According to Dilallo, the savings would come from extending the life of the expensive structured gear by three to five years by using the cheaper gear more often.

"We can use combo gear on 90 percent of our calls and save the expensive structured gear for fighting house fires," he said. "It still protects firefighters from cuts and scrapes, but doesn't have the heat padding."

A large portion of the budget would go toward raising employee salaries and benefits. Under the proposal, the salaries would total $9,022,059, with health insurance at 7 percent or $2,147,492.

According to Dilallo, the administration staff went from 23 to 11 employees in 2009. Besides taking a pay cut, firefighters also gave up a lot of their benefits, such as educational, longevity and furloughs.

"The employees are still 5 percent below where they were in 2007," he said. "Although many of those concessions are starting to be released, it still remained 5 percent across the board."

Another part of the budget calls for a maximum 4.1 percent increase to the special fire assessment fee for property owners in Lehigh. Voters approved the switch to a flat-fee system two years ago in an attempt to stabilize the district's finances following the recession. It had relied upon ad valorem taxes.

"The increase is still lower than the ad valorem tax, which has gone up steadily every year," Dilallo said. "The fire assessment hasn't been raised for two years."

He explained that the proposed increase is necessary to cover the costs of the fire protection and emergency rescue services.

According to officials, the total fire protection assessment revenue to be collected is about $12,843,856 and total annual emergency rescue assessment revenue is about $2,323,720 for the upcoming year.

Some controversy associated with the move is the cost to print and mail notices to property owners, alerting them of the proposed change. Because the district no longer relies on property tax for revenue, the Lee County Property Appraiser's Office will not cover the cost of the notices like it would have.

"The district is responsible for paying $167,965 to merely print each notice and mail them out to residents every time there is an increase," Carter pointed out.

Dilallo also explained that the Lehigh fire district is one of two in the county that provides advanced life support response and fire rescue services under the same budget.

"We also have to factor into the budget that we staff and dispatch five ambulances, which strictly service Lehigh Acres," he said.

The workshop began with a moment of silence for recently passed Commissioner Matt Smith.

A public hearing on the proposed budget, including the special assessment fee, will be held on Aug. 29 at 5:05 p.m. at Station 104. The hearing coincides with the fire board's next meeting, set for 5 p.m. at the station. The final public hearing on the fire district's budgetary and fiscal matters is set for Sept. 26.

Fire Station 104 is at 3102 16th St. S.W.

Share

Regular Size Lehigh Acres Citizen