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Lehigh voters say yes to Fire Assessment Fee

By Staff | Nov 7, 2014

Lehigh voters agreed Tuesday to change the way district property owners fund the Lehigh Acres Fire and Rescue District, meaning more money for the financially stressed department.

The decision to replace the property tax based on valuation with a flat assessment based on property type passed with 51.24 percent of the vote.

Unofficial totals were: Yes for the Assessment Fee – 8,101 votes. No for the Assessment Fee – 7,709.

The new method will start with the 2015-16 budget year.

“Generally we will not start to receive the Assessment Fee until mid-December of 2015 to January 2016,” Fire Chief John Wayne said.

The taxpayers of Lehigh voted to have their homes assessed at $292 each, no matter the size or value, and $21 per acre up to 10 acres of undeveloped land. Lehigh has more wooded vacant lots than present improved properties. Those who were exempt from the ad valorem tax fee also will be exempt from the new Assessment Fee, but the board has to make that official at its next meeting. It did make a resolution for those exemptions to continue at an earlier meeting.

Although the assessment won’t go into effect for a year, the vote was good news for the Lehigh Fire Department and its employees who have been given the green light to continue operations as usual.

Wayne told The Citizen that firefighters’ morale has risen and he is happy that the decision has been made as he and the board of commissioners can continue business.

The campaign was rough at times and included several broadcast emails that were sharply critical of the assessment, its related marketing effort and, in one case, poked fun at one of the board members. The emails portended to be from people in Lehigh who owned businesses and served on official boards. but despite similar email addresses, were not. All have told The Citizen that they had nothing to do with the emails and some have threatened to take legal action against the person or persons they believe sent them.

Frank Lohlein, who has been active in the past to not raise taxes said one seemed to come from him.

“It was not from me. I represent CAIT and even though it said it was from CAIT, it was not true,” Lohlein said.

But the negative emails may have backfired or had little impact as the voters decided to be taxed through the flat-rate assessments, which replace the ad valorem property tax method with which voters are familiar.

Wayne had spoken at several public venues in Lehigh over the past month about the proposed Assessment Fee. Under state law, he could not ask people to vote for the fee, but he could explain what it was and what may happen if it was not passed.

Wayne said currently, the department has 47 firefighter positions that are being funded on a federal SAFER grant that will expire on March 13 of next year.

“Therefore, there will be an 8-to-10 month time period that these 47 positions will no longer be funded with grant funds and this would require the district to pull approximately $2.8 million out of unassigned fund reserves to balance the budget. And as a result, the fire district would only be left with approximately $468,000 in an unassigned fund balance.”

The chief said depending on what amount of unassigned fund balance the board decides to commit to employee salaries and benefits, this will determine the number of potential firefighter layoffs the district may face by April 1 of 2015.

He said due to a few vacant firefighter positions and a few retirements, in addition to several employees that may be hired at other fire districts before the end of the year, this will reduce the amount of potential layoffs.

And in addition, the district will continue to maintain expenditures to the bare minimum to help offset the $2.8 million deficit, therefore, reducing the amount to potential layoffs as well.

“Before now and April 1 of next year, the district will be exploring everything possible to keep these potential layoffs to a minimum. Either way, this is a moving target that involves many different components before a final decision will be made regarding layoffs,” he said.

Wayne noted that the district has maintained a consistent message to the public throughout the department’s informational “Get The Facts Lehigh” campaign, during the monthly board meetings and media interviews, that regardless of the outcome of the Fire Fee Assessment Referendum, there was still the potential of firefighter layoffs due to the 8-to-10 month gap in salary and benefit funding.

“This should not be a surprise to anyone at this point – again, we have maintained a consistent message throughout the year,” Wayne said.

Now that the Assessment Fee will become the way the public will fund the fire district starting next year, Wayne said they will be able to maintain their response times and that all stations will remain open and their ambulance transport service will remain with the Fire District. ISO ratings should maintain unchanged and the level of service throughout the community will remain consistent with current practices.

Lehigh Acres insurance agent Al DeLeon said that as a local business owner and insurance agent, he, for one, was concerned the Assessment Fee referendum was not going to pass.

“Getting property insurance in Lehigh is a lot tougher than finding coverage in other parts of Lee County like Fort Myers.

“Companies just don’t want to insure in this area. Getting word of fire stations closing would only make the companies writing in Lehigh nervous in my opinion. Nervous could have meant policy cancellations and/or higher property insurance costs,” DeLeon said.

He said he was not able to vote because of where he lives in Lehigh. However, the people have spoken, he said, and he is “pleased we will not have to shut down any stations.”

When asked for a reaction, the CEO of the Greater Lehigh Chamber of Commerce, Inke Baker, noted that the chamber’s position on the fire assessment fee was neutral.

“From the election results, it is evident that Lehigh citizens were divided on the Fire Assessment issue. It is a good thing that we will have fewer layoffs and no fire houses that will be closing as a result of the decision,” Baker said.

As for morale at the four stations in Lehigh, Wayne said it has taken a complete 180 degree turn for the better because employees now have a clear understanding of their employment future with the fire district.

“This had been a major blow to employee morale this year as they were awaiting the election outcome. Joy, excitement, and elation are overflowing throughout the department at this time as a result. Employees have some stability now with their future,” the fire chief said.

Wayne said he personally wanted to thank the citizens of Lehigh for “getting the facts,” – “listening to us, believing in us, educating themselves on the issue, and voting yes on the Fire Fee Assessment.”

Trish Leonard, a consultant who worked to help the fire district to get its message out, said that TLC Marketing and Creative Services and its team of professionals worked hard presenting the facts and educating the community of the effect if the amendment had failed.

“We ran a positive campaign throughout. We communicated daily with the chief, used social media, website, printed materials, billboards and print ads. From the time our team met with the fire district, we all agreed that it would be a fact-based educational and professional campaign.

Leonard was the subject of scorn herself in one of the critical broadcast emails.

“Negativity gets you nowhere, distorted facts were out there, but I believe the residents were just tired of all the negativity and understood that Lehigh is growing and public safety is vital to any growing community – you cannot put a price tag on your life, so thank you Lehigh for believing in your fire district.”

Since Lehigh is not incorporated and has no exact boundaries, Sharon Harrington, Lee County supervisor of elections, told The Citizen there are a total of 44,810 registered voters. Of those, 12,984 are Republicans; 17,959 are Democrats. Another 12,332 has no party affiliation status and others of minor parties total 1,535. She was not able early on to say how many people voted in Lehigh precincts.

She said her office will be running precinct by precinct reports this week right after they submit their final election results to Tallahassee.

One fire commissioner retained; one voted out

In other news in fire district voting, incumbent Commissioner Jacqueline Danis was defeated by Matt Smith. Danis received 6,042 votes and Smith received 7,288 votes.

He is expected to be sworn onto the board at the next meeting which is on Nov. 25 at 5 p.m. The meetings are held at the fire station on Sunshine Boulevard and 16th Street.

Also, incumbent Linda Carter retained her seat with 7,770 votes while challenger William Liedtke received 6,071 votes. Carter will be sworn in another term. Liedtke was a retired firefighter and officer at the department.