‘Sticker shock’ over fire fee increases

MILTON —Santa Rosa County Commissioners are looking to increase annual rates for fire district services in unincorporated areas in the county.

In February, Navarre Beach Fire Rescue went to the board to approve rate increases for fire services. But officials said that there would first need a study to assess department needs before a rate increase could be implemented. And instead of looking at just one department, they had the study cover nine other fire departments in unincorporated areas.

Navarre Beach Fire Rescue and other departments in the study are funded by its Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU). Rates can only be changed annually, and all rate increases must be approved by the County Commission.

On Monday, Sandi Walker of Government Services Group, Inc. presented new rate calculations based on a five-year budget. Numbers were broken down to show rate increases from 70.7 percent to 100 percent. Commissioners expressed interest in a more modest 71 to 73 percent range.

Between January and October 2017, Navarre Beach Fire Rescue responded to 253 incidents. Navarre Beach Fire Rescue’s annual fire fee for the current fiscal year is $350 for residential property and $900 for non-residential properties up to 10,000 square feet, with an additional rate of 14 cents per square foot over 10,000. With the proposed rate increase of 70.7 percent, it would raise the MSBU to $425 for residential property and a significantly higher variable rate for non-residential properties.

The biggest increase would be for SpringHill Suites, a new 161-room hotel on Navarre Beach that would face an annual fee of $49,530.64.

There are nine other MSBU fire departments in Santa Rosa County including Pace Fire Rescue District, which is the second busiest fire department in county, said Brad Baker, emergency management director. In the 2017 calendar year, the nine departments have responded to a total of 6,677 incidents. Current adopted MSBU rates for those departments are $85 for residential properties up to 3,500 square feet and $2.50 per 100 square feet for non-residential properties.

According to the assessment, rates could be raised about $15 for residential properties and a slight variable increase for non-residential based on the 72.5 percent increase rate.

Baker said additional funding is desperately needed in all fire districts.

“They are woefully undermanned,” Baker said of some of the local fire departments. “Volunteerism is way down. Last week we had a structure fire in Allentown and there was only one firefighter from Allentown that could go. The call volume is steadily increasing.”

Some board members admitted there was some “sticker shock” from the study. But Navarre Fire Rescue Chief Danny Fureigh said the study just goes to show how Navarre Beach and other MSBU fire departments have been operating at “bare minimum.”

“It’s been nine years since Navarre Beach has revisited an MSBU rate,” Fureigh said over the phone while at a fire chief convention in Las Vegas. “We haven’t kept up with the growth. I think the study proved a rate increase was fair and equitable. The budget looks at replacing equipment, there’s no pay raises. We’re trying to sustain services.”

Commissioner Lane Lynchard said there will be a rate increase, they just have to assess how high they will go.

The board of commissioners will further discuss and set a maximum rate at Thursday’s meeting.

“You’ll get a budget increase,” he said. “It looks like 70 percent would be reasonable. Santa Rosa County is one the fastest growing counties in the state. Budgets for fire departments haven’t kept up.”

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