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North Fort Myers Fire District to seek tax increase

By Staff | Jun 28, 2016

Faced with even deeper cuts in service, the North Fort Myers Fire District will go to the voters to ask to raise the millage rate.

The district is seeking an increase in the capped millage rate from 2.50 to 3.50, and will take the matter to referendum on Aug. 30.

“We all suffered from the effects of the recession. We just kept cutting back and cutting back,” said Chief David Rice, who doesn’t want to cut back services any further.

“It’s been 13 years since we had a millage increase. Put that together and it’s time for a millage increase.”

The district is funded almost entirely with ad valorem property taxes. Under the current millage, property owners pay $2.50 for every $1,000 of assessed value of property. The owner of a home with a taxable valuation of $100,000 would pay $250 per year for fire service.

If passed, the same property owner would have to pay an additional $100 annually. This could put an additional $2 million annually into the district coffers.

The current millage has been capped at 2.50 since 2002 after voters agreed to increase the millage from 2.00.

However, the district took a huge hit during the recession in 2008-09, having to downsize and use up reserve accounts as property values (and therefore revenues) were cut nearly in half.

The district had a close a fire station, eliminate 12 firefighter and six administrative positions, sell first response vehicles, reduce overtime, comp time and benefits for personnel, with no raises since 2008, and reduce training budgets.

While ad valorem taxes have rebounded, it is not nearly to the point where it can sustain operations at current millage levels, officials said.

In 2015, the district responded to a record 10,288 calls.

Rice said the millage rate increase is needed to provide financial stability without the threat of having to cut back further on staff and apparatus, which could put the public and the NFMFD staff in danger.

Rice also said the district needs two new fire engines and equipment, such as IT, a new extrication device, and thermal imaging cameras, as age and wear and tear have taken their toll. He added he would also like to reinstate some of the positions he lost during the recession.

“My capital outlay has gone down the tubes, and I’m having a hard time planning for the future. I need to get additional revenue coming in to keep us up and running,” Rice said. “I need to replace stuff and it’s hard to plan for that when I don’t know what I’m going to get each year.”

The district attempted to increase the millage through referendum two years ago, using a fire-fee assessment methodology, but the measure was soundly defeated.

If this is defeated, Rice said he plans to put it back on the ballot during the next primary cycle. Until then, he would have to be conservative and not purchase the fire trucks right away. He may also not replace workers as they leave or retire.

“I just want to keep what I got and continue to run out of three stations and keep the emergency response vehicles running,” Rice said.

The NFMFD, an independent fire district in Lee County, covers a 36 square mile zone that stretches north to the Charlotte County line, east to the railroad tracks on Bayshore Road, south to the banks of the Caloosahatchee River and west to the Cape Coral city line.

The district has 50 fulltime workers, with between 10 and 18 intern firefighters.