Facing crisis, county eyes fire reserves

Published: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 30, 2010 at 12:36 a.m.

Alachua County may have to take approximately $500,000 out of the fire department's reserves to balance this year's budget or face the possibility of closing some stations on a rolling basis and laying off firefighters, Public Safety Department personnel told county commissioners Friday.

Commissioners met at the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens for their first planning retreat on the 2010-11 fiscal year budget. But, while the early numbers for next year project a $3 million reduction in the county's general fund revenue - from approximately $128 million to $125 million - there were still some fire department budget troubles for the current fiscal year that needed to be resolved.

Last September, county commissioners raised the property tax rates that fund the department by eight cents for every $1,000 of taxable value, which still left the department with a $528,394 shortfall. So far, the department has cut spending to eliminate $25,767 of that shortfall, but a little more than $500,000 remains.

Public Safety Director Ed Bailey said if that shortfall is not made up by April 1, the halfway point of the current fiscal year, then layoffs and a rolling "brown out" or temporary closure of stations could follow.

"We could eliminate stations and still provide fire services in the unincorporated county," Commissioner Mike Byerly said. "The question is, what's the level of service we want to provide."

Right now, the department's reserve is approximately $650,000 and dipping into the reserves for the full $500,000 could leave the department with little stored away heading into the wildfire season.

In connection with more long-term funding issues, commissioners need to decide by the end of March whether to move ahead with a potential fire assessment, which would also charge churches and nonprofit agencies that currently do not pay property taxes for the county's Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) that funds the fire department.

Commissioners Paula DeLaney and Cynthia Chestnut supported the establishment of an assessment Friday. Commissioner Rodney Long said he has historically supported the assessment while in office and would likely vote in favor of one but was not completely committed.

"It's going to be a political battle" to establish the fee, Long said.

Last October, commissioners voted 4-1, with Lee Pinkoson dissenting, to pay Tallahassee consulting firm Government Services Group Inc. up to $40,000 for an updated study on a potential assessment. The consultant will deliver a report, including a proposed rate schedule for different categories of properties, in early March. If commissioners push ahead, GSG will be paid additional money for a second phase of the assessment study.

Chestnut, DeLaney and County Manager Randall Reid said Friday that they believed an assessment - a fee levied on a property based on the benefit the study concludes it receives from fire protection services - was a more stable source of funding for the fire department than property taxes.

Unlike property taxes, payment of an assessment could not be included as a deduction on a federal tax return. County Attorney Dave Wagner said the assessment could lead to a reduction in the property tax rate for the MSTU that funds the fire department, but "I don't think it would be reduced to zero."

The Gainesville city Commission is also considering the establishment of an assessment for its fire department.

Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or chris.curry@gvillesun.com.

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