County renews fire, EMS assessments

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The Levy County Commission unanimously renewed property assessments for fire, EMS and solid waste and raised the road assessments for some property owners to keep up with rising costs in a public hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 11.

But it did not pass the fire and emergency medical services assessmentss without first hearing from Morriston resident Frederick Brouse and Pine Lodge bed and breakfast owner Sergio Soares of Inglis.

Brouse told the four commissioners — Commissioner Mike Joyner of Morriston (R-District 3) was absent — "I'm paying two and a half times what it was three years ago."

The commission, last year, raised the EMS assessment from $76 per residential property parcel to $119. The rates for other property categories are based on square footage with 7 cents for commercial, 19 cents for institutional and 1 cent for industrial/warehouse. 

The fire assessment went from $40 to $90 for residential parcels with square foot rates for commercial at 27 cents, 4 cents for industrial/warehouse, 30 cents for institutional. Rates for agricultural property parcels under 160 acres is $7.00 per acre and 2 cents for every acre over 160.

"It's just ridiculous," Brouse said. "I can understand the cost of living increase, but to go up two and a half times what it was?"

Commission Chair Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 4) explained that the commissioners decided to have the two departments funded from the assessments to recapture payments from residents, like Brouse, who pay no property taxes but want the services.

"That fund was balanced from the general fund," Bell said.

"The problem is that a large portion of that fund was paid by the general fund."

Bell said the way of making every property owner pay the assessments for fire and ambulance services "made it a more equitable distribution."

Commissioner Chad Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2) said due to various homestead exemptions, 45 percent of residential property owners pay no county taxes leaving it to the rest of the  property owners — 55 percent — to foot the bill. 

County Cordinator Fred Moody told Brouse, "You're fortunate that you don't pay ad valorem taxes."

He later explained, "Then again a lot of people were paying ad valorem (taxes) funding this."

He offered Brouse some hope for the future. "It hurts for the first year or two, but with the assessment done we hope this will be good for several years."

Moody said fire calls have gone down but the fire department reported there has been an increase in first responder calls — those for providing aid at the scene of accidents and medical calls until EMS can arrive and handle the patients.

He said the assessment should pay for what it funds. "Everyone gets this," Moody said, noting that even unimproved acreage is paying the assessment. 

Brouse was also concerned about the cost of using the ambulance service. "A friend of mine went to hospital and it cost over $1,000," he said. 

Moody explained that the cost is high because Medicaid does not cover the entire cost and some patients do not or cannot afford to pay. He said the cost also has to cover when an amblance crew has to wait as much as 45 minutes before a hospital takes responsibility for a patient because the emergency department is busy. 

"If my insurance went up two and a half times I'd dump 'em and get another company," Brouse said.

"Well, you're welcome to do that," Bell said while assuring Brouse the county's rates were lower than surrounding counties.

The cost, Moody said: "It's just part of living in a very rural environment."

Renate Cannon, a civic activist who attends commission meetings regularly, asked whether the county had to have EMS and fire services. "Does the statute require this?

County Attorney Anne Bast Brown said, "Once you're in it, you're in it."

Cannon asked how long the consultant's studies on the rates were valid. Brown and Moody explained the studies for fire and EMS were done last year and the study was just done for the roads and all are generally good for five years. 

Moody said this year's road study is why road assessments for maintenance and mowing are going up. 

Cannon persisted, "When is the hammer going to drop again?"

Bell said the commission would look at the situation annually as it does in the budget process to see what the demand is. He said a change in resident's use of the services would dictate the rates.

"Just because we get a study does not mean we have to raise the assessment," he said. 

Brown added, "The study tells you what those (assessments) should be. ... Whether they go up is a result of the budget."

"The budget is what drives those final numbers."

The motion to keep the fire assessment at last year's level was made by Commissioner Danny Stevens of Williston (R-District 5) and seconded by Commissioners John Meeks of Bronson (R-District 1) and Chad Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2).

Sergio Soares who owns the Pine Lodge bed and breakfast in Inglis said his problem with the EMS assessment was that each of the units — consisting of a bedroom and bathroom — on his property was billed $119 and asked if there could be a break in his rate.

"My occupancy is about 12 percent a year," Soares said.

Moody said he would personally check out the property and mentioned that the commission had dealt with a similar issue for a similar property in Cedar Key. "We can do a correction," Moody assured Soares. 

On the EMS assessment resolution, Johnson made the motion for keeping the rates the same as last year and it was seconded by Meeks. It passed 4-0.

On the road resolution, Commissioner Danny Stevens of Williston made the motion that was seconded by John Meeks of Bronson. It passed 4-0.

The motion for the $25 solid waste assessment was made by Meeks and seconded by Stevens. It passed 4-0.