New Station Needed
The need to replace Fire Station 31 hangs over the 2019-2020 budget discussions of the Board of Fire Commissioners for the Fort Myers Beach Fire Department. While the district has yet to set their Truth in Millage (TRIM) tax rate or adopt the budget, they have been looking at the district’s finances in detail and preparing to set the TRIM rate at their next meeting on July 24. The 2020 budget will be presented and voted on at two Public Budget Hearings to be held in September, as required by law.
The board began the effort to replace the station in earnest in January when they authorized Chief Matthew Love to begin a search for land on which to build the new station and make an offer contingent on board approval and assessment. The current Station 31, built in 1949, sits at 3043 Estero Blvd and is considered well beyond its useful life. Using the land it sits on for a new station is not feasible due to its small size, approximately an eighth of an acre, which does not allow adequate space for even the minimum three fire engine/ambulance bays. Additional limitations on ground floor usage due to FEMA building rules and height limitations impact both acceptable land space and the design of the new station. Modeling studies concluded that the ideal Station 31 replacement would be located between its current location at Donora Blvd and Times Square. The district’s other stations are located on Lenell Road and on San Carlos Blvd.
The operating budget was on the agenda at this week’s Wednesday morning meeting held in one of the Beach Library Community Rooms. At their last meeting on June 26, they focused on capital expenditures. Fire Chief Matthew Love told the board that the district’s taxable land values increased 3.3% according to the Lee County Property Appraiser’s Office. Leaving the tax rate the same as last year, 2.6153, would provide about $337,000 more to the district.
Impact fees are budgeted to increase by over 122%, but that only translates to $3,300 more for the district. The anticipated sale of Truck 33 once its replacement is delivered and an expected $150,000 in development funds are a major factor in the projected revenue increase of 5.9%.
Projected expenses are led by Personal Services at $10.7 million, an increase of 6.9%. Love explained that the cost of living allowance and the direction of current negotiations with District 15 employees, as well as increases in social security and Medicare contributions, which are driven by salaries, contributed to the increase. Health and life insurance increases of about $100 per month per employee and $109,000 to cover the new cancer coverage mandated by the Florida Legislature this year were also contributors. Employee costs total about 78% of the district’s operating budget.
The first shadow of Station 31 appeared in the Professional and Contractual Expenditures section, where Love noted that he’d increased legal fees by 72% or $40,000 to cover some legal fees related to land procurement. “I don’t know that it will be enough, but it seemed prudent to have some legal fees set aside,” said Love. Another $40,000 was included for outsourced property procurement services, which would cover testing and evaluation of a piece of ground that was under consideration for the new station.
The proposed budget includes a decrease of over 66% in Capital Expenditures or $1.1 million. This reflects the purchase of Engine 33 this year and no planned large vehicle replacement next year. Delivery of Engine 33 is expected late this fall.
In summary, Love said, “It’s a balanced budget, with the same tax rate. The only weakness is the building plan.”
Station 31 Funding
“There are different theories on how to pay for major capital expenses, like Station 31 will be,” Love said. “One theory is to save up 100% of the cost and pay cash for the building. But that’s a huge pot of money to sit on. Another theory is to save up 20% and finance the rest so that taxpayers pay the balance as they use the station.”
Exact cost figures for a new station are not yet available, but Love did explain that they will plan on budgeting $450/square foot, which is below the average for several new fire stations that they’ve toured in Southwest Florida this year.
He then spoke about a plan that involved budgeting 20% of building costs and financing the rest. And looking at the larger picture, he spoke of bringing all the district’s buildings under the same capital budgeting and replacement plan that the district already uses for heavy vehicles, like engines and ladder trucks. Under that plan, the district would estimate the life span of each building and its replacement cost and spread the replacement cost over the remaining life span budget years, so that when it came time to replace the building, there would be money set aside to cover 20% of the replacement cost.
Right now the district has nothing set aside for the purchase of land or building construction for any buildings. Since Love’s arrival in 2016, the district has enacted a catch-up plan for capital expenses that has designated reserve funds for all equipment used by the district, from fire hoses to ladder trucks to heart monitors, so equipment replacement is a budgeted expense that is reviewed each year.
Love explained that a similar “catch-up” plan for the district’s four buildings would need to utilize the 20% cash/80% finance as the tax rate for a 100% cash plan would put the district over it’s allowed maximum tax rate of 3.00.
The “catch-up” plan using the 20% cash model for just building replacement, not including any land purchase would require a Year One tax rate of 2.9851, with succeeding years at 2.6392. The current tax rate is 2.6153. He estimated that to cover a land purchase, as is needed for Station 31, a possible Year Two rate of 2.9851 might be considered by the board, before dropping to the lower rate.
Larry Wood, Board of Commissioners Chair, asked about the minimum size required for a station. Love responded that the district has no station design yet, but must comply with lot size, parking and height restrictions within the town.
“The land purchase is the key,” Wood said. “We should have the land first.”
Love proposed that the two budget hearings be held on September 12 and 25, explaining that the dates cannot be officially set until their July 24 meeting, when they will also set their TRIM tax rate, which can later be reduced at the budget hearings, but cannot be raised.
The district’s Emergency Medical Services were again recognized by the American Heart Association for their heart attack care and were also recognized for their stroke care, Love announced.
The Board voted 4-0 to approve a budget resolution and to approve Strategic Performance Goals for Chief Love. Commissioner Jacki Liszak was not present.
The next meeting of the Board of Fire Commissioners is on Wednesday, July 24 at 6pm at the Fort Myers Beach Town Hall.
By Missy Layfield