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Fire chief revises budget again

After Rowland Herald submits a plan calling for new fire engines and a new station, some commissioners broach the subject of a fire fee.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


CLEARWATER -- Fire Chief Rowland Herald began his remarks at a special City Commission workshop on Tuesday by saying he was sorry.

"I brought forth to you a plan that didn't adequately address the needs of the Fire Department," Herald said, referring to a report he had made two weeks ago that drew criticism for downplaying the department's needs. "For that I wish to apologize."

Then the fire chief gave a presentation that sounded a lot like the plan he had presented to the City Commission in April that was criticized.

He outlined spending at least $6-million to buy new fire engines, build one new fire station in northwest Clearwater and hire at least 17 new employees.

But Herald stepped up the timetable to build a new fire station in northwest Clearwater, calling for completion by 2003 rather than in 2007, the date requested in his April plan. That station will cost about $2.5-million.

Herald stuck by a previous recommendation to work out a deal to keep firefighters at a U.S. Coast Guard station on Sand Key, rather than building a new city fire station there.

And the fire chief said commissioners could spend even more, mainly in hiring up to 49 more employees, over the next five years. That would require raising property taxes or possibly imposing a new fire fee on residents.

After the presentation, Commissioner Ed Hart and Mayor Brian Aungst revived the idea of imposing the controversial fee to generate money for the Fire Department's budget.

City Manager Mike Roberto said that he would present the commissioners with a plan for creating a modest fire fee in upcoming budget talks. Aungst said he would like to have the fee developed over the next year if possible.

The fire fee has generated a lot of community debate since it was proposed last year and sunk by the commission. The debate prompted the City Commission to appoint a task force to look into the issue last fall. Earlier this year, the task force reported that the Fire Department needs $17-million in new stations and equipment, plus up to $4.5-million annually added to its budget, primarily to hire 49 more employees.

But the task force rejected the idea of charging city property owners a new fire fee to pay for all that. The group reported that a flat fire fee would not be as fair as simply raising property taxes. They also suggested the city could cut other projects to pay for Fire Department needs.

Task force members in the audience Tuesday urged the commission to follow their recommendations -- and not to revisit the fire fee issue.

"I think that we have the property appraisal system in place, and that really needs to be the way that taxes are put upon us," said task force member and beach hotelier Russ Kimball.

But most of the commission doesn't want to raise property taxes this year to pay for increasing costs, even in the Fire Department.

Aungst insists the city should not cut neighborhood-oriented projects like new recreation centers to pay for fire equipment -- although other commissioners say they are ready to do that.

"I 2-to-1 would rather be known as the commissioner who saved lives than to have my name on a bronze plate on a rec center," said Commissioner J.B. Johnson. "If there are ways and means to reduce a budget and cut out non-essentials, I think we should do it."

Herald's revised plan for Fire Department spending, which is now being worked into next year's tight budget, would require between $324,000 and $518,000 in new expenses in 2001 for new employees.

The difference in costs depends on whether the commission goes with a plan to keep three people on each fire engine, as most county fire departments do, or whether the city decides to spend to staff each engine with four people.

Over five years, increasing staffing to four firefighters per engine would increase the department's budget by about $2.7-million annually. Herald says that would be a lot safer, and some commissioners agree. They just aren't sure yet where the money will come from.

"Coming soon, another meeting at some point to discuss this more," Aungst said at the close of Tuesday's workshop on the issue.

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