SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — Firefighters working for The Villages Fire Rescue are expressing frustration about their ongoing funding problems. As the retirement community around them grows at lightning pace, they said it’s becoming harder to keep up without a fresh injection of funding.
Their problems were exacerbated by last year’s budget process when Sumter County did not approve $14 million in requests because of a lack of tax revenue. Firefighters said it caused plans for a new station to be shelved, new equipment to be paused, and staff to be shifted around to cover the community’s needs instead of adding new positions.
The problem was repeated over on the county side of things, where $12 million of that department’s requests also went unapproved.
This came as Sumter County leaders proudly declared the county’s tax rate was the lowest in history.
“At the end of the day, people just look at the bottom line, what’s it going to cost me,” Commissioner Andy Bilardello said.
Bilardello, a former public safety director and supporter of the county’s fire departments, was optimistic that a solution had finally been found to give The Villages residents the premium service they expected while bowing to rural residents’ requests to lower tax bills.
The first attempt was the creation of an independent special district, like Disney’s Reedy Creek, that would have the authority to levy taxes on The Villages residents to fund the department, separating its finances from the county.
County and state leaders approved the plan, but voters shot it down.
Then, leaders discovered they were massively undercharging fire fees to residents. Taxpayers are currently assessed $125 annually to cover the two departments’ costs. A firm hired to determine the county’s needs said the charges should be approximately $320 per year.
Commissioners put the higher fees up for a vote. They were forced to kill the plan after being confronted by angry voters.
“None of us anticipated that the raising the fire fee was going to fail. It made common sense to approve it,” Bilardello said, adding that the increase amounted to half a dollar per day. “I told the people… it’s only going to come back and bite us. We’re going to have to lay off firefighters, we may have to shut down the library. There’s going to be budget cuts. People didn’t care.”
Thanks to department management finding other things to cut, Bilardello’s most dire predictions didn’t come true. However, the problem remained.
The county’s new plan is to create a dependent fire district, which is similar to their original independent proposal with the same boundaries and taxing authority. The major difference is that county commissioners ultimately approve the board’s annual budget.
Commissioners planned to vote on the five-member board Tuesday night and schedule a hearing for Nov. 28, where they’re expected to approve the district’s creation.
The Villages firefighters said they expected this new try to pass because many of the prior no votes came from rural county voters. They said The Villages residents tended to be more willing to agree to tax increases to fund major services.
People walking around Brownwood, one of the three downtown districts within The Villages, agreed.
“I think our firemen and policemen deserve a lot more than they’re getting,” Patti Dicianna said.
It’s unclear if The Villages or Sumter County residents’ tax bills will be affected by the plan, and if so, how much they’ll increase or decrease.
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