With the prospect of having to pay triple or more for fire service, the North Fort Myers voters in the Bayshore Fire District on Tuesday gave the proposed new fire assessment a resounding "no" at the polls.
Voters rejected a new fire assessment by an almost three-to-one margin, which Fire Chief Larry Nisbet said could result in the firing of half his full-time firefighters come Sept. 14.
Of the 984 people who cast ballots, 726 voted against the referendum (73.78 percent).
Steve Brodkin, president of Concerned Citizens of Bayshore Community, said the voters have spoken, and louder than even he thought.
"They didn't reach out to the community when they planned this. They had a bad plan and basically slapped the fire board down. Maybe they come back with a more reasonable request people can consider," Brodkin said.
Nisbet said he was disappointed at the prospect of laying off firefighters, and that this was the best chance he had of preventing it.
"We tried to come up with the best plan we could with the capabilities we had, now we'll have to step back and see what we can do, but we know we have significant changes coming up," Nisbet said.
The flat-rate assessment would have replaced the ad valorem tax methodology with a fee-based system. District officials said it would have re-distributed costs among all properties, including the tax-exempt; stabilized revenues; and ensured future growth of the department.
The fire board went back two years to see where most of the calls for service have been. Nearly three-fourths of them were residential, which is where the bulk of assessment would be levied at a flat cost of $587.78 annually, regardless of property value.
It was the flat assessment that had most voters worried, since it would have meant a sharp increase for those with lower property values, while those with more expensive homes (and large tracts of land) would have paid less.
"Generally, the lowest income people would get the biggest increase. Some of them paying $80 would have to pay $587.78," Brodkin said. "It seems galling that they need money, but the person in the $1 million home is going to get a tax cut."
Brodkin also said there was concern that if the assessment passed and the millage was set at zero, there was no legal guarantee it would stay there.
Nisbet said he thought there was a lot of misinformation sent out about the assessment initially, which worked against him at the polls. Now, it's back to the drawing board.
"A lot of work went into this. We'll just have to apply for more grants. They're my guys and I want to try to keep them," Nisbet said. "Unless property values increase or we get new construction, our budget won't rebound. This is trying to fill a hole."
Cape Coral City Council approved a citywide "two-tired" fire assessment last year along with a "public service tax" on electric bills, promising a drop in the property tax rate.
The board has indicated it will reach the promised 1 mill (total) reduction rate this budget year. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed property valuation and taxpayers were told last year that in the end, the "average" taxpayer would be paying about $250 more per year with the additional revenue going for things like infrastructure and road repaving.
In Cape Coral, fire services have traditionally been part of the general fund, which is funded by property taxes. Under the new scenario, the new fire assessment funds a portion of the fire department's operational costs, leaving money in the gernal fund for other things.
This year, the city plans to increase that percentage to 69 percent.