‘Fire tax’ discussion emphasizes need in Glades County

MOORE HAVEN — The Glades County Board of Commissioners is poised at a fork on a rural road, a yes-or-no decision point. Three votes lean one way; two votes stand firm the other way.

There’s a turnoff ahead, a side road that leads to potentially a much safer population, with better and timelier fire and emergency response protection for the county’s few thousand residents. (Glades is the third-least-populated county in Florida, with around 4,900 households.) The change would involve some considerable cost to everyone, but commissioners could select from a range of prices to at least get the ball rolling. Commissioners Donna Storter Long and Donald Strenth want to go that way.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Public Safety Director Bob Jones explains a point to (from left) County Commissioners Donna Storter Long, Weston Pryor, Tim Stanley, John Ahern and Donald Strenth.

But the majority seem to want to keep going straight on the road the county’s been following for years, relying on the tiny crew that Glades County employs and on volunteer fire departments that are a few shy of the bodies they need to provide 24/7/365 protection. Those three — Board Chairman Tim Stanley, Vice Chairman Weston Pryor and Commissioner John Ahern — so far have indicated they probably would vote to deny the county this chance to set up a different, possibly fairer way of taxation.

And if anything is to be done, time is growing short for this year, because deadlines must be met, by law, to proceed in a different direction.
The change would be to the method referred to as a “fire tax.” In government-speak, it’s an MSBU, for Municipal Services Benefit Unit, and would mean an assessment depending on what kind of property you own.

If the commissioners stay the course, it would perpetuate Glades County residents’ uncertainty about how long they’d have to wait for help — and what kind would come — if, heaven forbid, they have to call 911.

Some residents think that’s a mighty dangerous path, and not surprisingly they live in the farther-flung parts of the county where response time might be 20 to 30 minutes or more. IF someone responds. As Public Safety Director Bob Jones has repeatedly warned, with such a paltry staff of firefighters and EMTs, anybody’s emergency might be life-threatening to them if those first responders are out on other calls, transporting another patient to Okeechobee or Fort Myers or Clewiston, or fighting another fire. Or, in the case of volunteers, at their regular job, unable to leave, or otherwise indisposed.

A long discussion of Glades County’s possible options took place during a workshop Tuesday, April 9, after commissioners’ last regular meeting. Public Safety Director Jones showed a PowerPoint presentation giving information from a needs assessment done in 2014, with some updates he was able to do and new numbers crunched by Sandy Walker of Government Services Group, the firm that did the earlier study.

The county could hire it again to update the information for a few thousand dollars, but at their March 25 meeting, commissioners rejected on a 3-2 vote a motion from Commissioner Storter Long to do just that. Only Commissioner Strenth joined her in supporting it.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Sandy Walker speaks from the podium April 9 during the Glades County Board’s workshop on fire and emergency protection.

Several citizens spoke at the end of the session to give their views. David Heflin was signed up to speak at the regular meeting and asked to do so before the commissioners adjourned for their workshop.

“I’m a longtime volunteer firefighter with Glades County. I’m also a Glades County EMS employee. Currently I live in Ortona. We have about four firefighters on a perfect day,” he stated. Previewing some of Mr. Jones’s presentation that was to come, he added:
“I think part of the problem with getting more volunteers is that the state requires approximately 200 hours of training in order to become a volunteer. This is not going to change, and frankly I wouldn’t want it to. I wholeheartedly support the idea of a full-time fire department in Glades County.”

He said he believes there’s a fairness issue involved in the funding debate.

“One of the important issues for me is that if I pay the same thing for services as other residents of Glades County, then I expect and demand the same service.” Money used for fire protection and EMS now comes only from Glades County property taxes, paid only by property owners, and state financing.

Mr. Heflin went on: “Also, on another note, did you realize that the pay for EMTs and paramedics is significantly lower than in the neighboring counties? I came to work in this county for you, making $2 less per hour because I wanted less stress and a better boss. I have found both. I wholeheartedly support the idea of full-time firefighters. Thank you.”

After Director Jones gave his presentation at the workshop, discussion went on for a couple of hours, into early afternoon.

Commissioner Stanley repeated his opposition to imposing a large enough assessment under an MSBU to cover creation of three fire stations manned full-time, which Mr. Jones said would cost about $258 per year, based on calculations from the numbers in the 2014 study. Those must be updated if the process is to move forward. But, no official action could be taken at the workshop, and the talks are likely to be continued at next week’s board meeting on Monday evening, April 22, at 6.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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