15% increase approved as maximum for Sarasota County fire assessments beginning in 2024 fiscal year

County Commission to vote on final figure during Sept. 11 budget hearing

 With no members of the public having signed up to offer comments, it took only about 22 minutes on May 24 for the Sarasota County Commission to listen to a presentation and then vote unanimously to raise the county’s annual fire assessments by 15%.

That amount could be decreased, however, before the board adopts the final figures for the 2024 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. The budget hearing when the assessments will be addressed has been scheduled for Sept. 11 at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

First on May 24, Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, reprised key points that he had made to the board members when he addressed them previously during their regular meeting on May 9. He again stressed increasing expenses for the Fire Department, mostly related to inflation, and the need to enable the department to build back up its 60-day reserve fund, which would cover operations in the event of a disaster that prevented the county from collecting revenue for a period of time.

For one example about rising expenses, Collins told the commissioners that the cost of a single set of turnout gear had jumped in a range between $2,500 to $2,700, to a total between $4,000 and $4,500. “We see [such a hike] across every category [of expense],” he said.

Collins also reminded them on May 24 that an outside consultant had worked with staff on developing the methodology used to determine the new rates.

Collins added that the higher revenue would enable the Fire Department to remain competitive for hiring purposes, and the funds would help, as well, in the continued effort to add an extra staff member to all fire engines; 16 still have just two people.

Further, Collins said that 10% of the department’s expenses cover the bargaining contract in place for the personnel.

The county Fire Department serves every jurisdiction except Englewood and a volunteer district in Nokomis, he added. A unit rolls on a call on an average of every 7.45 minutes, Collins continued, characterizing the workload as “very busy.”

The commissioners last approved new fire assessments in 2017, he said.

Before the vote, Commissioner Michael Moran did ask Collins to confirm, based on the slides presented, that the owner of a 2,500-square-foot, single-family residence would pay an extra $2.81 per month, if the 15% increase goes into effect.

“Yes,” Collins responded.

A slide showed that the owner of such a house is paying $191.25 a year at the current level of assessment. The rate that would bring in no more overall revenue than the county has been collecting for fire assessments would be $196, the slide said. With the 15% uptick, the owner of the 2,500-square-foot dwelling would pay $225 a year.

As he did in early May, Collins explained again on May 24 that assessments are made on the basis of “equivalent building units,” or EBUs. One EBU represents 100 square feet.

The commission also concurred with staff that the smallest dwelling unit to be assessed would contain 750 square feet, as the board members have adopted numerous changes in policies to try to encourage the development of units of that size for affordable housing purposes.

Previously, the minimum was 1,000 square feet.

Collins did note that the assessment per EBU for a single-family residence would rise to $9; it has been $7.65.

For a multi-family residence, the assessment for one EBU would climb from $13.39 to $16.31, with the 15% uptick. Finally, for the non-residential category, the assessment would rise from $20.20 per EBU to $22.74.

Additionally, the owner of an RV space, who has been paying $66.66 per year for each EBU, would pay $75.04. For the owner of a mobile home, the EBU rate would climb from $76.15 to $85.73.

The charges for RVs and mobile homes are based on pad size, Collins explained.

For a typical, 1,600-square-foot multi-family dwelling, the new annual fee would be $260.96, compared to $214.24. For a 10,000-square-foot non-residential building, the current assessment of $2,020 would climb to $2,274.

Collins also reminded the commissioners that the increases still would be shy of the maximum figures allowed on the basis of the methodology used to determine them.

A chart that Collins showed the board noted, as well, that the number of single-family home parcels that a consultant used to develop the new figures was 127,308. The number of multi-family residential parcels, the slide said, was 31,772.

Further budget factors

With the 15% increase, the fire assessments would be expected to bring in $54,431,996 in the 2024 fiscal year, yet another slide noted. If the commissioners had decided to set the maximum potential rates, that figure would have climbed to $55,460,713.

Collins stressed that the revenue from the assessments goes only to support the Fire Department operations, not emergency medical services expenses.

With the maximum allowable increase, the average amount of the county’s fire assessment revenue for the next five years — fiscal years 2024 through 2028 — would be $63,737,611, Collins said.

During the 2022 fiscal year, a slide pointed out, the largest number of calls, by category, that the Fire Department handled — 2,657 — was associated with single-family homes. That number represented 44.1% of the total, and it was up 0.54% since 2017, Collins pointed out.

Firefighters responded to 1,124 calls from multi-residential family dwellings, a number representing 18.66% of the total.

Finally, staff logged 2,244 calls — 37.24% of the total in the 2022 fiscal year — to non-residential structures.

The number of multi-family residential calls was up 1.98% from the 2017 tally, he added, while the figure for non-residential calls had declined 2.53% over the same period.

The EMS call tally in the 2022 fiscal year ended up at 56,847, Collins noted.

Adding in calls to protect structures when natural lands were on fire — 194 incidents — and non-specific calls — 2,441 — Collins pointed out that the total for Emergency Services in the 2022 fiscal year was 65,507.

Commissioner Mark Smith made the motion in favor of the proposed 15% increase for all the assessments, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded it.

“Understanding that we need to keep our personnel, and we need to obviously equip them,” Smith said, “I think [the 15% increase is] the prudent thing to do.”

Referencing the uptick in the new monthly rates, Neunder said, “It’s basically water, a cup of coffee,” and the funds go to protect “the health, safety and wellness of our county and the increase in calls” as the county continues to gain population.

Moreover, Neunder talked of the fact that having advanced life support equipment on every fire engine “brings tremendous value” to county residents. Because all of the firefighters are cross-trained as paramedics, Neunder pointed out that they can begin administering life-saving drugs just minutes after they arrive on the scene of an emergency.