As it turns out, the taxpayer cost of the proposed Pine Island Fire Department millage is much larger than I had previously understood. I have therefore changed my opinion. I still support the proposal, but with reluctance. I wish they had asked for a smaller increase, but it's already on the 2014 ballet, so we only have a yes or no vote.
Here follows is my revised opinion on the subject;
Revised Letter to the Editor
Why I reluctantly intend to vote for the Matlacha Pine Island Fire Dept. millage increase
By Phil Buchanan
On 26 August, Greater Pine Island voters will be asked to vote on whether our fire department should be given a millage increase to 3.75 mills (an annual taxpayer cost increase of about $112.50 on an average Pine Island $150,000 home). I’m a fiscal conservative, and the money is not insignificant, but I reluctantly intend to vote for the increase because--simply put--the fire department cannot continue to provide adequate service on its present budget.
The huge drop in property values on Pine Island has had a catastrophic effect on fire department revenues, which dropped over 30% from $5,248,590 in 2007 to $3,654,450 in 2013. Current property value annual increases of some 3% would not restore those revenues for at least 10 years without a millage increase. Meanwhile, expenditures have exceeded revenues every year since 2011. Reserves have been expended and equipment purchases have been delayed to the breaking point. Bunker gear and air packs ($250,000), and 5,000 feet of fire hose ($20,000) will reach end of life and replacement is mandatory. Upcoming expenses of a $425,000 engine replacement as well as $125,000 for a “Jaws of Life” cannot be met.
Making the planned Matlacha Fire Station operational is essential to service east of the Matlacha Bridge, where response times can now exceed 15 minutes—which is totally unacceptable. ISO ratings and increased insurance premiums in that area probably exceed the cost of the millage increase, but of course the more important cost is the potential of lost lives and property. Getting the station operational with either a permanent building or a promised temporary FEMA trailer for personnel and already acquired Quonset huts for equipment (not yet permit approved by Lee County) is essential for minimum service to the East Matlacha Area.
Of course, the main expenditures are personnel costs, including a staff for the new Matlacha Station. Maintaining a professional fire department means above all retaining a stable force of well-trained personnel, and that’s not going to happen without an adequate revenue base.
For all those reasons, I reluctantly intend to vote for the rather large millage increase and I give it a lukewarm endorsement. Honestly, however, I wish the Fire Department had done better planning and asked for a smaller millage increase. If we vote against the currently proposed millage increase, the Fire department will be in serious financial trouble until the next election in 2016, when we clearly will have to go through all this again. It's a close call--vote your convictions, but I’m going to reluctantly go yes on the proposed millage increase.
Signed, Phil Buchanan
Of course, as the real estate values increase (and they are significantly), and because this is millage, the Fire Department will automatically receive more money as they should. On top of this increase, and as more and more building inevitably goes up on Pine Island they will receive even more funding.
As Buchanan alludes, equipment costs and replacement, as a percentage of expenses, is an almost insignificant amount spread over a few years. Furthermore, these millage increases are like self fulfilling prophecies, e.g., as everyone's cost-of-living (millage increase) goes up, so does the Fire Dept.'s.
It just isn't possible to save someone's house or business building if it catches fire, they can only protect the neighborhood and that isn't the bulk of the problem on Pine Island. For as often as this happens, someone sarcastically said, "It would be cheaper just to buy them a new house." But then everybody would be burning down their own houses.
Far and away the bulk of the problem is "forest" fires. And for seriously large areas the state must come in with helicopters and bulldozers to assist. This was the case every time this subject came up even when there was only a volunteer Fire Dept. to protect Pine Island over forty years ago. In this regard, the larger question is whether large corporate farms and 20/20 property which, for the most part pay minimal or no taxes, are paying their fair share for this significantly large area protection.
Additional questions should be what unnecessary government regulations are forcing increased costs.