County says no to firefighters

By Steve Estes

The Monroe Board of County Commissioners last Thursday decided not to approve the addition of 11 new paid firefighter positions, seven of which would have gone to Sugarloaf and four to Layton.

Fire Chief Jim Callahan had recommended adding the additional paid positions at Sugarloaf because of concerns he had that the formerly all-volunteer force would not be able to field personnel, particularly during daytime hours.

Sugarloaf, as well as other volunteer departments in the county, has had increasing difficulties luring volunteer firefighters into the fold. Many of the current Sugarloaf volunteers work during the day, making responses uncertain, said Callahan.

To combat that uncertainty, Callahan has stationed two part-time paid personnel at Sugarloaf to man the station Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

But with every paid firefighter costing the county roughly $70,000 per year in salaries and benefits, commissioners thought the price was too steep for the extra coverage right now.

Adding the extra positions would have raised the property tax rate for the District One Fire and Ambulance Service Area, which includes much of unincorporated Monroe County except Key Largo, by some 13 percent.

“There’s a concern here that raising the property tax rate that much in this economy might prompt some areas to seek annexation into the municipalities where the rate is cheaper for fire protection,” said Commissioner George Neugent.

He specifically mentioned Layton, Duck Key and Key Haven.

“If Layton opted to go with Marathon, the Marathon and Duck Key could annex that entire area and it would become even more expensive for the rest of the county supply emergency services,” he said.

“If the rate gets too high, Key Haven might seek annexation into Key West and we lose that tax base for unincorporated Monroe,” he added.

Callahan said that if the volunteer numbers continue to dwindle, the county will at some point in the future have to consider adding more paid positions to guarantee coverage.

Callahan has said his plan is to try and field a paid emergency services force every 10 miles. Sugarloaf right now is used as part of that formula even with a part-time paid force and primarily volunteers.

With the deletion of the 11 positions and the deferral of some other emergency apparatus, the BOCC set a tax millage rate for this year of 4.03 mils. Property owners will pay $403 per $100,000 of valuation, raising about $77 million in general fund revenue for the county.

The rest of the county’s $340 million budget is made up of state and federal contributions, as well as fees and grants.

That rate also doesn’t include tax millage collected by other taxing authorities in the county such as the school board, mosquito control and the South Florida Water Management District.

County officials approved the use of $5.8 million in reserves to balance the budget this year and bring the millage rate down.

According to County Administrator Roman Gastesi, that money is needed to cover one-time costs associated with state Medicaid bills and possibly reimbursement to employees for retirement benefit payments.

Last year, the state Legislature passed a new law mandating that government employees pay three percent of their gross to the state for retirement benefits, an amount formerly covered by the entity. A state court has overturned that, and the matter is still in the courts.

The state has also mandated that counties pay back the state for Medicaid funds used to pay for indigent patients whose home county couldn’t be determined. Initially the state wanted $3.6 million but that has dropped to $1.6 million if the county pays up front. That, says Gastesi, is the best move to save the taxpayer money.

The new budget also includes seed money to implement the new permit review process forced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and US Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion court settlement, as well as implementation of a new permitting software that Gastesi says will streamline the permitting process by allowing multiple reviewers to work on permit applications concurrently instead of the current method of passing the permits from office to office.

The new budget also restores additional library hours and funds a space needs analysis to see if the county can cut costs by consolidating spaces.

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