By JAIME STUDD
Recorder News Staff
FORT HUNTER -- The Fort Hunter Fire District Board of Commissioners held a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss the future of its contract with the town of Florida and possible changes they believe could spell the end of the district altogether.
Board Chairman Jason Downing said town officials are once again looking to explore the possibility of reconfiguring the town's current fire protection structure as a potential cost-saving measure.
The issue came to light during the town's budget proceedings in November when the Florida Volunteer Fire Department, which provides fire protection for 88 square miles of the town, proposed that it assume control over a parcel of land known as "Schedule A."
Schedule A encompasses the area immediately surrounding Route 5S, including the Beechnut and Target Distribution facilities. The town currently contracts with the Fort Hunter Fire District to provide coverage to that area.
According to Downing, Florida Fire has suggested that it could provide coverage to Schedule A for approximately one third of the $87,000 Fort Hunter is currently charging the town for the coverage.
The problem, Downing said, is that such a move would decimate Fort Hunter's budget and ultimately lead to its demise.
"We would have to fold," Downing said.
Downing said the board called Thursday's meeting to discuss its "options," which, he said, include fighting to keep to the current structure in place or, possibly, proposing that the Fort Hunter Fire District dissolve in order to create a new, townwide, fire protection district.
"The town's got a lot of different options," Downing said, noting that one proposal offered during discussions that followed Monday night's Florida Town Board meeting included dividing Schedule A amongst the two fire protection entities.
The viability of the Fort Hunter Fire District under that option, Downing said, would depend on a number of factors, including exactly where the lines would be drawn and the assessed value of the property retained by the district.
State law, Downing said, provides that a fire protection district can only tax at a rate of $1,000 per $1 million assessed value.
Using Target Distribution as an example, which, he said, is currently assessed at approximately $20 million, Downing said that alone would not be enough to financially salvage the Fort Hunter district.
Ideally, Downing said, his board would like to see the structure stay as it is, but they would be willing to explore the possibility of a townwide district.
"We don't really have a lot of options," Downing said. "We've got to sit down and talk with them and get it straightened out."
According to Downing, the Fort Hunter Fire District is one of only two fire districts in Montgomery County.
Unlike standard volunteer departments, which operate as non-profits and whose contracts with various municipalities to provide fire protections services comprise the vast majority of their operating budgets, fire districts operate as an entirely separate entity. Its commissioners are elected and it has the power to levy taxes within its district for fire protection services.
As such, Downing said, fire districts are subject to an entirely different set of legalities, the intricacies of which he does not believe town officials have a firm grasp on.
"I'm sure they're comparing our budget to Minaville's budget, but we're a municipality and they're a volunteer fire department," Downing said. "You can't compare the two. It's completely different."
Downing said the elimination of the Fort Hunter Fire District presented several serious concerns, including the ability of Florida to provide adequate fire protection to homes in the hamlet and the potential for a significant increase in the insurance rates of Fort Hunter homeowners.
Still, Downing said, he has been assured by state officials that the town would be required to adequately cover the area should the Fort Hunter Fire Department cease to exist.
Dissolution of the fire district, Downing said, would mean that all its assets, including property and equipment, would have to be sold off and the profits put in a fund to offset the fire tax levy for district residents.
"I'm willing to do what ever I have to do to keep the fire district and the fire department solvent down here," Downing said. "I don't want to see it go away."
Neither, apparently, does Florida Town Supervisor Bill Strevy, who stressed Thursday night that the town board is only seeking to get a clearer financial picture.
If there were to be changes, Strevy said, among the options that would be looked at would be to simply expand the Fort Hunter Fire District to include Schedule A.
"I think what Fort Hunter's perfect solution would be to include all of Schedule A or parts of Schedule A, then their future would be guaranteed going forward," Strevy said. "That's what we're going to look at.
"I think what we need to do is first of all to decide on the cost," Strevy added. "We're trying to find out: Is that 87,000 really a valid number? Is that something that could be adjusted, downward, hopefully? And then, if we agree on a number, I would think that that's when you start looking at how may parcels you would have to include in Schedule A going forward to make them whole."
Strevy said he was hesitant to comment on any possible scenarios, however, noting that there were still too many factors that had to be further explored.
"There's much more to be done and this will go on probably now till mid summer before it gets resolved," Strevy said. "One fire department claims that the other fire department is charging us way to much. Our board is relatively uniformed as to what the costs are and that's what we need to find out first of all."
"There's a lot of things on the table and which one we end up with, I'm not exactly sure at this point in time, but I think would should consider all of our options," he added. "As long as we can keep the department, the equipment and the service available to the people, I think that's really what our end goal is. And we have to make it financially responsible to the taxpayer going forward. Make sure they're getting the most bang for their buck."
Florida Town officials have called a special meeting for Feb. 1 to review the budgets, district maps and assessed valuation of the property in question.