To the editor:
On Aug. 26, Greater Pine Island voters will be asked to vote on whether our fire department should be given a millage increase to 3.75 mills (an annual taxpayer cost increase of about $112.50 on an average Pine Island $150,000 home). I'm a fiscal conservative, and the money is not insignificant, but I reluctantly intend to vote for the increase because - simply put - the fire department cannot continue to provide adequate service on its present budget.
The huge drop in property values on Pine Island has had a catastrophic effect on fire department revenues, which dropped over 30 percent from $5,248,590 in 2007 to $3,654,450 in 2013. Current property value annual increases of some 3 percent would not restore those revenues for at least 10 years without a millage increase. Meanwhile, expenditures have exceeded revenues every year since 2011. Reserves have been expended and equipment purchases have been delayed to the breaking point. Bunker gear and air packs ($250,000), and 5,000 feet of fire hose ($20,000) will reach end of life and replacement is mandatory. Upcoming expenses of a $425,000 engine replacement as well as $125,000 for a "Jaws of Life" cannot be met.
Making the planned Matlacha Fire Station operational is essential to service east of the Matlacha Bridge, where response times can now exceed 15 minutes - which is totally unacceptable. ISO ratings and increased insurance premiums in that area probably exceed the cost of the millage increase, but, of course, the more important cost is the potential of lost lives and property. Getting the station operational with either a permanent building or a promised temporary FEMA trailer for personnel and already acquired Quonset huts for equipment (not yet permit approved by Lee County) is essential for minimum service to the East Matlacha area.
Of course, the main expenditures are personnel costs, including a staff for the new Matlacha Station. Maintaining a professional fire department means, above all, retaining a stable force of well-trained personnel, and that's not going to happen without an adequate revenue base.
For all those reasons, I reluctantly intend to vote for the rather large millage increase and I give it a lukewarm endorsement. Honestly, however, I wish the Fire Department had done better planning and asked for a smaller millage increase. If we vote against the currently proposed millage increase, the Fire Department will be in serious financial trouble until the next election in 2016, when we clearly will have to go through all this again. It's a close call - vote your convictions, but I'm going to reluctantly go yes on the proposed millage increase.
St James City