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Fire assessment plan gets first nod

By Staff | Jun 4, 2013

Plans to implement a new fire assessment on Cape Coral properties moved forward Monday.

Phase two of the city’s “financial diversification” plan went into motion during a special city council workshop meeting.

Afterward, council voted 6-2 to direct City Manager John Szerlag to work on the adoption of a resolution of the fire assessment, work on enabling an ordinance and the methodology to be used by Burton & Associates, the consultants who have worked on the city’s plan.

Szerlag was pleased by the reception city council gave the proposed ordinance after the hour-long meeting that the preceded the regular meeting.

“Council is to be commended very highly for the decisions they’ve made on our behalf,” Szerlag said.

Among those most pleased by what he heard was fire union chief Brendan Fonock.

“The key is the sustainability and not having to rely on ad valorem taxes. To get this package together is very important for the city,” Fonock said. “This gives us a more stable base.”

With a tight time frame, the city council and Szerlag stressed urgency in getting the fire assessment ordinance completed, especially with the council hiatus drawing near and deadlines for the 2014 budget looming.

“The timelines came out of budgeting. Can you accordion some things? Maybe. But as a manager I’d rather follow our standard timeframes,” Szerlag said.

The idea is to have a resolution adopted next week and enabled when council comes back from hiatus on July 15. The latest a vote can come is on July 29 so notices can go out to residents by July 31.

Burton & Associates presented a two-tier approach to assessing properties as a way for the city to recoup 62 percent of the cost of fire department operations. That does not include the EMS.

As proposed, the new fire assessment would raise about $20.5 million for the city.

Tier one would be a readiness fee that would provide for 24/7/365 operation, including fire stations, vehicles and other fixed and unfixed costs. The set cost would be $106.43 and would apply to every property owner, regardless of acreage or whether the land is improved or not.

Tier two would be based on an EBU, or equivalent benefit unit, which would be $3.96 per $5,000 worth of a structure (not the land), rounded to the nearest $5,000.

That value would be based on the tax value on the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Web site.

That is based on the cost of fighting a fire, officials said. A big-box store, which would take more manpower to fight a fire, would pay more than a small single-family home.

“The two tiers were based on being ready (at all times) and the ability to provide those services if called on,” McGrail said.

While Burton & Associates’ reasoning for the methodology was confusing to many, Councilmember Derrick Donnell said the bottom line of all the minutiae was simple; reaching the target.

“At the end of the day it’s about using those three pieces to get us to the $150 per residence. All these numbers marry up,” Donnell said.

On April 29, the city council passed the first prong of its three-pronged tax plan, a 7 percent public service tax on residents’ electric bills. Should the fire assessment pass, the last phase would be a 1 mill reduction in the property tax rate.

With the two new taxes added, and the property tax decline deducted, the impact on an “average” single-family homeowner is estimated at the $150 per residence to which Donnell referred.

Collectively, the tax plan should allow the city to reach its target of $20 million per year in additional revenue, the bulk of which officials have said will be used for capital improvements, including new vehicles and equipment s well as projects.