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After Villages voters rejected an independent fire district, a 'dependent' district is planned

Sumter County Fire and EMS was able to avoid layoffs, due in part to union compromises, after an increase in fire assessment fees was rejected by the County Commission last month.
Sumter County
Sumter County Fire and EMS was able to avoid layoffs, due in part to union compromises, after an increase in fire assessment fees was rejected by the County Commission last month.

The Sumter County Commission has taken the first step toward creating a fire district with taxing authority for The Villages.

This so-called "dependent district" is in the works even though voters there rejected an independent fire district in November 2022.

The budgets for Sumter County’s two fire departments – The Villages Public Safety Department and Sumter County Fire and EMS – fell sharply last month when the commission rejected a proposed increase in the fire assessments for homes and businesses.

In August, many members of the public urged the board not to increase the residential assessment from from $124 to more than $323. Businesses also objected to costly square-footage-based assessments.

A budgetary shock

That vote cut $12 million from the county department's proposed budget and $14 million in county funding from the proposed budget for the Villages fire department.

The increase in spending was driven by growth and the addition of ambulance services provided by the two departments, according to County Administrator Bradley Arnold.

Now the two departments have canceled new and vacant positions, postponed new stations and added fees for inspections. County firefighters with International Association of Firefighters Local 5313 agreed to suspend their 8.7% cost-of-living increase and eliminate training funds and most stipends.

Also to help fund the departments, on Tuesday the commission increased the per-parcel assessment by one dollar to its upper limit of $125, set a fee schedule for annual fire inspections and authoritized the Villages department to use its amenities fees for operational expenses.

Both Villages and county fire departments have been able to avoid layoffs.

As for the county, Arnold calls this year is a “blip” for its ambitious plans to improve service.

"We have a goal," he added. "We have a vision. But from a resource standpoint, we’re going to pause on how fast we’re going to pursue that for next fiscal year. But we will be looking at that for the following fiscal year."

Proposal for a dependent district

After the August vote, Arnold says The Villages reached out to explore the idea of a fire district that, with commission approval, could impose fees and property taxes to respond to its particular needs.

The areas covered by the two departments might want different levels of service and need different funding sources, Arnold said. "Some of those differentiations are calling for different levels of service. And those different levels of service means there needs to be differential revenue."

The dependent district would cover the same territory inside Sumter County as the independent district that was authoritized by the Legislature but failed in a referendum.

The County Commission would authorize the new district's funding methods, including assessments, property taxes up to a certain limit and, possibly, impact fees. Its budget would come before the commission for an up-or-down vote.

Commissioners voted Tuesday night to seek applicants for a district board -- they rejected a motion by Vice Chairman Roberta Ulrich to accept boards members recommended by the Village Center Community Development District.

Commissioner Andrew Bilardello said he knows some of those recommended by The Villages and they're "fine candidates."

"I just don't think we sould be spoon-fed candidates by the district," Bilardello said.

The commission also decided that seats on the new board would go up for a district-wide vote after one year and three years.

A final decision on the dependent district is expected in early December.

Joe Byrnes came to WMFE/WMFV from the Ocala Star-Banner and The Gainesville Sun, where he worked as a reporter and editor for several years. Joe graduated from Loyola University in New Orleans and turned to journalism after teaching. He enjoys freshwater fishing and family gatherings.
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