Estero fire commissioners finalize budget of $5.7 million

Tuesday, September 30, 2003

By CHRISTINA HOLDER, clholde[email protected]

Estero fire commissioners voted 4-1 to keep the property tax rate at $1.79 per $1,000 of assessed value and voted unanimously to accept a budget of about $5.7 million Monday night at the district's final budget hearing.

Property tax revenue will account for about $5 million of the budget for fiscal 2004.

Fire commissioners cast the final votes with little discussion, but some said the budget and tax rate still do not allay all the district's concerns about what some are calling skimpy reserves and staffing.

Commissioner Jeff Morse was the only board member to vote against the tax rate during each of the three public hearings.

"My main thing is the safety of my citizens and my firefighters," Morse said. "I feel that we are unsafe. I'll go down 4-1 every time."

At past meetings, Morse has asked the other commissioners to consider increasing the tax rate so the district could hire more staff.

The budget for fiscal 2004 adds the salaries of five new firefighters/paramedics to the district's current 34 firefighters.

Fire Chief Dennis Merrifield told board members the cost of paying for workers' compensation was $80,000 less than originally thought and the budgeted surplus would be transferred to the district's operating reserve fund.

Merrifield is predicting the district's reserve fund will increase from $248,330 to $328,330 by the end of 2004.

Board chairman Richard Schweers said he still was concerned the reserve fund should be larger but said he was glad it was "going in the right direction."

"Traditionally, reserves should be in the area of 20 percent of your budget," he said.

At the end of 2004, the reserve fund will make up slightly less than 6 percent of the budget, according to the revised reserve figures.

"We can't be shortsighted," Schweers said. "It takes several years to build that up."