May 24 public hearing to be conducted on proposed 15% increase in Sarasota County fire assessments

Emergency Services director points to rising costs for Fire Department

 During the morning of May 24, the Sarasota County Commission will conduct a public hearing on proposed new fire assessments for the 2024 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

The board members formally will set the assessments for that fiscal year when they conduct their budget hearing on Sept. 11, a county news release said.

Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, told the commissioners on May 9 that staff is recommending a 15% uptick in what is called the equivalent billing unit — EBU — for parcels in each of three categories: single-family homes, multi-family residences, and non-residential structures. One EBU represents 100 square feet.

Collins explained that the proposed increase is necessary because the Fire Department has been incurring higher expenses. For example, he said, the cost per set of fire protection gear has gone up more than $2,000 over the past year.

Further, he reminded the commissioners, they agreed several years ago to increase staffing on the county’s fire engines, based on a consultant’s findings.

Finally, he noted, “Our 60-day reserve is below 60 days.”

If the 15% increases win approval, the owner of a parcel with a single-family home would see the EBU rate rise from $7.65 this fiscal year to $9 in the 2024 fiscal year.

Persons living in multi-family housing would pay $16.13 per EBU, compared to the current rate of $13.39.

Finally, owners of non-residential parcels would see their rate rise from $20.20 per EBU to $22.74.

A chart Collins presented to the commissioners pointed out that, for the owner of a 2,500-square-foot, single-family house, the annual assessment would rise from $191.25 to $225, an extra $33.75 per year. Further, under the proposed new plan, Collins told the commissioners, the minimum assessment would be for a 750-square-foot dwelling, instead of 1,000 square feet. He said an analysis showed “no appreciable difference” between Fire Department responses to residences of each of those sizes.

“We identified that [change] as fair and equitable,” he said, “and it also helps with things like affordable housing.”

Over the past few years, the commissioners have taken a number of steps to try to spur the construction of affordable housing by reducing specific types of expenses for dwellings that contain 750 square feet.

Additionally, the proposed assessment for the owner of an average multi-family home — one containing 1,600 square feet — would climb from $214.24 in the current fiscal year to $258.08 in the 2024 fiscal year.

For the owner of a non-residential parcel, the assessment would be $2,274, the chart pointed out. That compares to $2,020 in the current fiscal year.

The revenue neutral rates, another chart showed, would be as follows: $7.84 per EBU for a parcel with a single-family home; $14.20 per EBU for a multi-family residence; and $19.80 per EBU for a non-residential parcel.

Additionally, the assessment this year for a recreational vehicle space is $66.66. That would rise to $75.04 with the 15% increase. For a mobile home space this year, the assessment is $76.15; that would go up to $85.73.

The estimated net revenue from the fire assessments this year, another slide noted, is $43,477,267. If the 15% rate increase goes into effect, that would be expected to bring in $49,992,610 in the 2024 fiscal year.

The updated assessments, if approved, would be “collected by using the property tax bill beginning in November 2023,” a county staff memo pointed out.

During his remarks, Collins said that he has been meeting with various groups across the county, including leaders of the Chambers of Commerce, to explain the Fire Department proposal for the higher assessments. “We’ll continue to do that and have several general community meetings,” he added.

This week, county staff announced the following public meetings during which residents can learn about the proposed changes. Each session, which will begin at 6 p.m., has been planned to last an hour. An individual is welcome to attend more than one meeting, the advisory pointed out:

  • May 16 —Gulf Gate Public Library, located at 7112 Curtiss Ave. in Sarasota.
  • May 18 —William H. Jervey Jr. Venice Public Library, which stands at 300 Nokomis Ave. S. in Venice.

No new assessment categories proposed

During the May 9 discussion, Commissioner Michael Moran pointed out that “the hardest part” of dealing with the assessments is ensuring that they are imposed “in a fair way.” He noted that the assessments also have to be “legally justifiable.”

Recent discussion, Moran indicated, had focused on whether a new category should be implemented for assisted living facilities. The thinking behind that, Moran said, was that “they have more activity, so they should be charged more.”

However, Moran acknowledged, creating one new category could put the county on “kind of a slippery slope.”

“Is that the fear?” he asked Collins.

“You’d have to look at all potential property types,” Collins replied, including hotels and “mom and pop” operations, instead of just one new category.

“That’s fair,” Moran told him.

Many times, when people see fire engines at assisted living facilities, Collins explained, those were the first units that could get to those scenes.

He reminded the commissioners that all of the county’s fire engines are classified as Advanced Life Support units, which means that the firefighters are cross-trained as paramedics. The goal is to get equipment to an EMS emergency as quickly as possible, Collins said, regardless of whether it is a fire engine or an emergency medical services (EMS) vehicle.

Moran conceded that people just assume calls at assisted living facilities are fire-related when they see the engines.

Funding factors

During his May 9 presentation, Collins explained that the Sarasota County Fire Department “has two major sources of funding” — the non-ad valorem fire assessments and a property tax for EMS operations.

“Revenues cannot be transferred between [the Fire Department and EMS] funds,” another chart said. “Most costs are split 50/50,” the slide added.

A county staff memo included in the May 9 agenda packet explained, “The [fire] assessment is based upon a benefit received by the property through fire protection. The County chose the assessment form of funding for fire service because it is a consistent, cost effective, and a more stable funding mechanism.”

The county implemented the assessment system in 1988, the memo added. The methodology on which the assessment is based was updated in 1996, 2002 and 2017 and again this year, the memo noted.

In working on that update, Collins continued, staff and its consultant — Government Services Group Inc. (GSG), an Anser Advisory Co. — reviewed the fire incident response data for the parcel types in the county. “Any call that is EMS-related is excluded from the study,” Collins pointed out.

Collins did point out that the assessment area includes the city of Sarasota and all of the unincorporated areas of the county except the Englewood and Nokomis fire districts.

The GSG study did find “a small shift in fire incident response from non-residential parcels to multi-family and single-family parcels,” the county staff report said.

Of the 6,025 fire protection calls in the county during the 2022 fiscal year, one of Collins’ slides showed, 2,657 involved single-family residences, or 44.1% of the total. That was up 0.54% from the percentage in the 2017 fire assessment study.

The number of incidents involving multi-family homes in the 2022 fiscal year was 1,124, representing 18.66% of the total, the slide said. That was up 1.98% from the 2017 level.

Finally, the number of non-residential parcel incidents was 2,244, which represented 37.24% of the total. The latter figure was down 2.53% from the 2017 percentage.

Based on the study, Collins said, the maximum fire assessment for a single-family parcel could be $9.99 per EBU; for a multi-family parcel, the figure would be $18.09; and for a non-residential parcel, it would be $25.23. At the maximum level, he said, the assessments would be anticipated to bring in $63,737,611.

Commissioner Moran made the motion to authorize the May 24 public hearing, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded it.

The presentation and discussion took only about 23 minutes.