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City residents may pay fire fee

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By Pat Hibbs

In the upcoming tax year, Williston residents may be subject to a fire assessment for the first time in the city's history.

The City Council voted at its most recent meeting to implement a Resolution of Intent to fund fire and rescue services by the imposition of an annual fee on all property within the city limits of Williston.

City Attorney Norm Fugate said that city residents pay no fire assessments to Levy County, as occupants of the unincorporated portions of the county do.

Fire Chief Lamar Stegall presented an exhaustive study of property in Williston divided into residences, vacant land, and commercial property. He also cited statistics documenting the number of calls in each category. Stegall stressed that the study was based only on data from within the city limits. He said that about 63 percent of the fire and rescue services calls are from outside the city limits and that they are reimbursed by the county through existing agreements.

The proposal is that annual fire assessments will be based on the type of property. Residential properties would be taxed at a fixed rate, as would vacant parcels of land. Commercial property is classified on ranges of square footage, with a proposed fixed fee for each range. For example, of the 229 commercial properties in the city, 65 consume between 2,000 and 3,900 square feet.

Stegall told council members that the numbers in the study still needed minor revisions, based on recent discoveries that not all of the property in the city is contained on the Property Appraiser's records, the basis of the study. He also said that calls for assistance on the highway were included in the vacant land category, and needed to be separated in order to calculate correctly.

The council, presented with the preliminary figures, was asked simply to allow the study to be revised and the numbers refined, by indicating that it intended to impose the fees in the coming fiscal year.

The Fire Department's annual budget (estimated) for fiscal year 2008-2009 is about $161,000. The council may decide fund that amount, or any part of it, through the fire assessment fee. Should only a partial amount be funded by the fee, the rest would come from the city's general fund.

With the statistics that are currently being used for estimating purposes, the annual fee for a residence would be well under $100, even if the entire $161,000 cost of services is funded.

Stegall will present revised numbers and cost estimates at the next meeting. Any plan to impose a fee will be subject to two public hearings, which will be advertised in order to encourage public comment.

Stegall also asked for approval of an amended agreement with American LaFrance LLC, which is to be the provider of the department's newest Liberty Pumper. Stegall said that he has seen - and sat in the driver's seat of - the truck itself, delivery of which has been delayed many times. It is scheduled now, he said, to be delivered by the end of July 2008.

The council action was required because the manufacturer declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The action simply reaffirms the original price of the truck.

Interim City Manager Schiefer provided the council with an update of sorts on the anticipated purchase of the former Church of Latter-day Saints, at the north end of Linear Park. He asked again for the council's decision on an option contract and the amount to be offered in that contract. He had polled council members on the matter. Two of them thought that the city should stick to its most recent offer, two thought that the church's "final" offer should simply be accepted, and the other thought a middle figure should be offered.

Fugate explained that the option contract leaves the choice to the city; should the seller accept the city's offer, the council would still be able to cancel the contract if further consideration causes a change of heart. Councilman Steve Holcomb questioned the costs of modifications to the building to make it suitable for city business, and Fugate replied that the option contract gives the city time to assess that kind of concern while retaining the right to purchase the building at the agreed-upon price.

The council gave Schiefer and Fugate the go-ahead to prepare an option contract using a figure that falls between the church's final offer and the city's.

Council engaged in a preliminary discussion of millage rates for the fiscal year 2008-2009. The millage rate is the number of cents charged by the city per $1,000 of assessed value of all property within city limits. The current rate of 5.5 mills means that $5.50 in taxes is assessed for each $1,000 of appraised value. A residence appraised at $100,000, for example, is subject to a $550 tax.

Schiefer presented several options for the millage rate to be used for the city's budgeting process. Because of a decrease in property values, using the current millage rate of 5.5 would yield an 8 percent decrease in ad-valorem tax revenues to the city.

The rollback rate has been established at 5.9025. This is the rate at which the city would realize the same income from ad-valorem taxes as has been produced this past year. A rate of 6 mills would yield an increase of 1/10 of one percent (less than $1,000). After extensive discussion, that is the rate that the council asked Schiefer to use for budgeting,

Council president Jones, who also chairs the Airport Committee, summarized the committee's Monday night meeting, from hog harvesting permits to the need for a part-time - or, rather, "come to work when I need you" - employee.

The most significant item was the new agreement for four acres leased from the city by Williston Peanuts. The previous lease, for a 20-year term, had been at the rate of one dollar per year. The proposed new lease is for $1,300 per acre for five years. The CPI (Consumer Price Index) increase will be levied annually. At the end of the initial five-year term, Williston Peanut can expect incremental increases. A representative of Williston Peanut who was present at the council meeting verified that the company agreed with the proposed changes.

Councilman Steve Holcomb reminded members that the annual "Wet the Kids" day at the Johnny T. Henry Celebration Park is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 16. It begins at 10 a.m. and lasts "until we run out of water or hot dogs," said Holcomb. At "Wet the Kids," the Williston Fire Department, with assistance from the Morriston company, provides water slides for adventurous children and fine spray for adults and younger children. Free refreshments are served. Everyone in Williston and the surrounding communities is welcome to join in the fun.

Williston city council meetings are held twice a month on Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. in the council chambers. The agenda is available on Friday afternoon after 2 p.m. at city hall, or on the city's website, www.willistonfl.com.

Public participation is encouraged.