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Manatee County--Citizens Scrutinize Budget

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  • Manatee County--Citizens Scrutinize Budget

    District answers questions on taxes
    LISA MARIE LENTZ
    Herald Staff Writer

    EAST MANATEE - Only a few residents of Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue District's 13,000 single-family households showed up at a public hearing Wednesday to consider the district's proposed millage rate and budget for the 2003-04 fiscal year.

    And after answering questions posed by the homeowners, who hailed predominantly from the Mote Ranch and University Park developments, commissioners adopted both resolutions unanimously.

    Concerns focused mostly on what residents considered sharp increases in the fire portion of their tax bills.

    Commissioners pointed to the district's ever-increasing needs caused by rapid growth; the "two-in, two-out" rule that requires two fire fighters remain outside a burning structure when two are inside which was an unfunded state mandate; and a need to play catch-up in a district ravaged by 15 percent and 10 percent tax cuts, made in 1996 and '98, respectively.

    Southern Manatee's assistant chief J.R. Thayer was not surprised by the inquiries.

    "Some people weren't aware of the proposed increase until they got their TRIM notices," Thayer said, "and there are a lot of questions."

    The Truth-in-Millage notices, which were mailed in mid-August, notify people of how much their property is assessed for tax purposes. Residents in the Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue District will pay 80 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value instead of the proposed 70 cents. The increase resulted from the failure of legislation that would have allowed the district to expand impact fees.

    Without the increase, the district would have had no choice but to make budget cuts, according to Thayer.

    He said his office had received 30-40 phone calls since the notices were mailed, most with a similar thread running through them.

    "They were to the effect of 'While I understand what you're doing, that you need stations, people, apparatus, I just don't want to pay for it,' " he said.

    Having answered the various questions, Thayer said only a half-dozen or so remained "really concerned."

    Following the hearing, district chief Tom Hennessy said he thought the meeting had helped educate the small amount of taxpayers whose taxes were most affected, a less than 10 percent portion of the district's residents.

    The budget represents a 35 percent increase over last year's, according to Thayer, and includes nine new positions, raises and workers' compensation rates that have increased some 182 percent since 2000.

    Salary increases range from 10 percent to 15 percent for the district's 58 full-time employees, including probationary firefighting positions to office personnel to the district's chief.

    Commissioner John Barry defended the increases, which were called into question by University Park resident Hank Mosler.

    "We've seen what has happened to EMS in this county," Barry said, referring to Emergency Medical Services' hardships in finding and retaining the necessary number of paramedics to staff the county's ambulances. "We don't want that to happen to our firemen."

    Commissioners, who are paid $6,000 per year, received no increase.

    The only capital project on the budget is an $1,856,780 expenditure to build and outfit Station 3 on its current site at 7611 Prospect Road.

    The station, when constructed, was supposed to be both a temporary structure and location for the years 1979-81, after which time a permanent one was planned on property the department owned near Whitfield and Lockwood Ridge roads.

    But development patterns didn't warrant a station in that location at that particular time, Thayer said, and eventually the Prospect site became permanent, but the temporary building remained.

    The new building project was not slated to begin until 2007-08, but the district was able to lock in an interest rate less than 5 percent on a 20-year loan, Thayer said.

    "We were able to save thousands and thousands of dollars over our 10-year plan period," he said.

    Upcoming plans to build Station One and administration building, replace Station Two and add a fifth station to the district were funded in last year's budget.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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