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New millage rate adopted by Fire Board

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Oct 14, 2020

Fire Chief Ben Mickuleit

pleblanc@breezenewspapers.com

At the final budget hearing of the Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control District on Sept. 30, the board voted unanimously to adopt a lower operating millage rate of 3.5500 mils, which is less than the rollback rate of 3.6085 mils, a 1.62 percent decrease.

The proposed millage rate, which was set at July’s budget meeting at 3.600 mils, was tentative, until the final budget hearing, where the board was initially split. While Commissioner John Cammick said rethinking his proposal at the last meeting to lower the rate to 3.55 leaves little room for contingencies, and proposed leaving the rate at 3.600, Commissioner Ila Valcarcel said she believes the millage rate could be lowered to 3.5 while still leaving a healthy reserve — a reserve, she said, which has increased $1.3 million in the past two years.

“In light of the pandemic, where every dollar counts, we ought to go to 3.5 and we’re still going to have over $4 million in our reserve,” said Valcarcel, adding that taking every dollar from constituents would be unnecessary.

Board Chairman Tonya Player suggested meeting in the middle of the 3.5 and 3.6 since the board was split in the decision up to that point.

Commissioner Michael Dreikorn said thinking about a contingency number throughout the year is important, and while he applauds efforts to keep costs down for locals, the board has a heavy responsibility to safeguard the public’s trust in the district’s ability to perform.

“We are at the 11th hour making some decisions,” Dreikorn said. “This board should be talking about this throughout the year and being deliberate in making decisions.”

Big hurricanes, he cautions, have taken fire stations out, warning that the financial impact could be huge if the district were to lose stations two and three.

“I join Commissioner Cammick,” Dreikorn said, “in saying we should probably stay where we’re at and have a very deliberate conversation over the next 10 months in developing the next budget to make sure we’ve got the percentage that we all agree on, the buffers that we agree on, and then drive the tax rate down accordingly.”

He said while he does see the need to get taxes down, he loves the district’s response time being seven minutes or less.

Fire Chief Ben Mickuleit commented on the current budget and how your tax money is being spent

Although the board reduced the millage rate from 3.75 to 3.55 — a savings of $20 per $100,000 annually, there may still be some confusion as to the fire district’s role on your tax bill and how that money is being spent.

“If you have a $300,000 house, the commissioners saved you $60,” said Fire Chief Ben Mickuleit. “That’s pretty significant, especially since we have had a maximum millage rate of for the past 10 years.”

At one time, Mickuleit explained, it was 3.000 and increased to 3.75 in order to build a new station, to replace aging equipment and to add needed staff.

“This is the first year we have been able to lower the rate, as promised.”

The district’s reserves are allocated for emergencies, such as a hurricane or pandemic. Because all the stations are insured, the district will eventually be reimbursed for monies utilized for these things, but it could take years.

“When Irma hit, we used about $100,000, for just a small incident that lasted a few days,” Mickuleit said. “That’s why these emergency funds are so important. If we had another incident the size of Charley, we are talking about millions of dollars that the district needs to put up to cover it before we could get the funds back.”

In the event of a catastrophe that leaves the island incapacitated for several weeks, the district still needs to be fully operational, including staff working overtime and functioning equipment, the funding of which comes directly from the reserves, since you cannot budget unforeseen events.

“If a station gets destroyed,” said Mickuleit, “we have to get a temporary station up, because we still want to provide the same service, so we’d have to put up a trailer or do whatever we have to do. We’d get the money back, but it takes a lot of time.”

In looking at the unique shape of this 45-square-mile island, Mickuleit pointed out to get the best rating, there should be a fire station every five miles.

“In 2007 we had a study done on where to strategically place the fire stations on Pine Island,” Mickuleit said. “The board decided to take the 4-station approach, in order to get the most island coverage. If you look at other fire districts, they don’t have the area that we have to service — being so long and 45 square miles.”

He explained that if the area were more circular than lengthy, the fire district may be able to safely place two stations for maximum coverage, but that the shape of the island changes the whole dynamic. Areas that need to be protected, in the event of brush fires, are often preserves, or parks, none of which are reimbursable.

“If somebody gets hurt on a nature walk, they don’t pay us taxes, but, of course, we’re still going to go there,” said Mickuleit. “We’re in a very unique situation, in that if you compare us to Sanibel or Fort Myers Beach, their average property value is so much higher than ours. We don’t have the high-end commercial resident tax base.”

Most other districts have multiple commercial buildings, he said. That means big money, tax wise. To do a fair comparison, he recommends looking at other district websites to get an idea of their budget and compensation. He also recommends the comparison be to other special districts, rather than larger districts or counties, since the Matlacha/Pine Island Fire Control District is funded solely by our residents.

“We are the only agency that gets utilized within the community,” Mickuleit said. “Things like school taxes or mosquito control — those things are for the entire county. Fire district is only for your local fire district. You’re paying for one specific service that only services your district. One of the main reasons we were able to reduce the budget is because of the firefighters. They do so much work internally that saves the taxpayers money. They do everything from remodeling and truck repair and rebuilding, to plumbing work and yard maintenance, just because they love the district and they want to save the district money. If we had to pay for all the services these men do, we would have to stay at the maximum millage rate just to maintain the district.”

Mickuleit emphasized the district’s level of transparency by encouraging everyone to check out pineislandfire.org where more information can be found, including the audit financials, meeting agendas and minutes, as well as the year-end and annual reports, highlighting every yearly achievement.