Lehigh Fire, Rescue District to discuss budget at meeting
A large turnout is expected at a special Tuesday meeting for the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District as firefighters have been passing out literature inviting the public to attend.
The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the auditorium of East Lee County High School on Thomas Sherwin Avenue and will focus solely on the budget.
Fire board commissioners are facing tough decisions because of a lack of money coming to the district this year from taxes in Lehigh.
Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson recently released preliminary figures showing that Lehigh’s property values have gone down nearly 50 percent. Official figures will be released July 1, but they are not expected to be different from the current projections.
Within a week of Wilkinson’s announcement, Fire Chief Donald Adams announced that nine firefighters and two administration staffers would be laid off.
Adams also has come up with a timeline and plans to lay off more firefighters in the coming weeks and months. He has talked to employees about the planned layoffs and when to expect them.
The Office of the County Appraiser only informs taxing districts of the taxable evaluation of property in their districts. It does not raise taxes, only tells taxing districts what to expect in funding as budgets are being prepared.
The Lehigh Acres Fire District must have a budget ready by the end of summer as the new budget takes effect Oct. 1.
The board depends on Adams for recommendations, but it has the final say. There is a possibility of closing down fire stations and limiting ambulance service.
Adams said recently that the cuts are nobody’s fault, that the situation has come about because of the poor economic conditions of Lee County.
The present millage rate in Lehigh is 2.79 mills per $1,000. The board can vote to raise it to 3 mills, but that is a cap. It cannot raise taxes more without a special referendum from voters, which could cost as much as $160,000, according to Adams.
He said it would take “6 or 7 mills” to make up the difference to retain current services and balance the new budget.
Although firefighters have been given questionnaires asking what concessions they may be willing to give up, if any, to help save jobs, no information from the union has been offered.
Adams said that next year this time may be worse. Property values may continue to drop, and if they do, so will the funding from taxes.