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Fire district to plan new tact

Officialssay they're in dire straits and desperately need higher fees.

By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA, Times Correspondent
Published November 14, 2007


INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Despite three defeats in a row at the polls, fire officials here will meet Tuesday to plan to once again ask voters to approve a fee increase for fire protection.

A bare fraction - 902 - of the more than 13,000 voters living in the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue district turned out last week.

By a 59 to 41 percent ratio, they rejected raising fire fees from their present level of $190 to $260 a year for single-family homes. Proposed higher fees for multifamily homes, businesses and other types of property were rejected as well.

The fire district provides fire protection and EMS services to the beach communities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores, as well as a large area of the mainland between Walsingham Road and 102nd Avenue.

The referendum election marked the third time since 2003 that voters have turned down the fire district's request for more money, despite recurring warnings that without additional revenues the district faces possible bankruptcy within a few years.

The fire district came under considerable criticism several years ago when beach community leaders charged that the district was mismanaging its money and inappropriately spending fire fees for services provided to property owners outside the district boundaries.

The beach communities and the county subsequently formed a joint task force to examine the district's operations and finances, recommending several changes, including the moving of an EMS substation on the beach.

During the past year, the fire district tightened spending, raised fire inspection and other fees, and limited firefighter raises to only 2 percent, below the cost of living increase. The district also renegotiated its EMS contract, as recommended by the task force, for EMS services.

This year, the county is paying the fire district an additional $400,000 for a total of $1.6-million annually. The county pays local fire districts to provide emergency medical services to residents in their areas.

Despite these operational savings and additional revenues, fire Chief Russell Livernois said the district continues to operate at near bankruptcy.

In October, the district had about $1-million in the bank, only enough to pay salaries for three months - providing a one-month cushion until new fire fee revenues begin flowing at the end of November to the district from the county tax collector.

The fire district also needs to begin replacing its aging fleet of fire trucks, and make major repairs to its buildings.

Most fire districts replace their equipment every five years, but the Pinellas Suncoast district's reserve truck is a 1983, while its newest truck was purchased in 2002.

"Our buildings are falling apart," Livernois said. "The station on the mainland was built in 1971 and was only supposed to last 10 years. We are doing constant repairs on our beach station."

The district's auditor continues to warn that without additional revenues, he will be forced, possibly by 2009 or 2010, to report the district's insolvency to the state Legislature. If that were to happen, the county and the individual cities would be responsible for contracting with area providers for fire protection and EMS services.

Ironically, those services likely would cost district property owners much more than they are now paying. With the exception of the Pinellas Suncoast district, county fire departments levy taxes based on property values to fund their services.

"We have no choice but go back to the voters in March," Livernois said. "We are at the point that we can't continue to operate without additional revenues."

Tuesday, the fire commission will meet at 7 p.m. at its Indian Rocks Beach fire station headquarters. Topic A will be to plan how to convince voters in March to approve a fee increase, Livernois said.

[Last modified November 13, 2007, 22:52:29]

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