By Lisa Zahner
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — In an effort to share the costs of fire rescue infrastructure more equitably, the Indian River County Commission has voted to notify the cities of Vero Beach, Fellsmere, Sebastian and Orchid that it intends to ask for a contribution from those municipalities’ Optional Sales Tax receipts for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. In the current budget year, the County has spent $2 million on the new Fire Station 12 to open in Gifford in October and has budgeted another $538,000 for Fire Station 9 construction in Sebastian, nearly $64,000 in construction work on Fire Station 5 and $1.1 million for the proposed Fire Station 13. It has not been decided exactly where Station 13 would be located. The total amount budgeted by the County for new and improved fire stations in the 2008-2009 fiscal year is nearly $3.8 million. The County will pay for most of this with its share of the Optional Sales Tax (OST) revenues, which is the extra penny paid in Indian River County.
“The people in the unincorporated areas have higher taxes because of this,” said Commissioner Gary Wheeler, who raised the issue at the July 23 county budget workshop and again at the August 18 commission meeting. “If the county wasn’t spending this money on new fire stations, we could use that money for roads or for right-of-way for road projects that we need to get done that we have to pay for in other ways.”
Wheeler equated the situation to a parent giving each of five children an equal allowance $20 and one child footing the bill for all his siblings’ lunch at McDonalds, therefore using up the whole $20 allowance.
“That’s just not fair,” Wheeler said.
According to Jason Brown, director of the Office of Management and Budget, the municipalities which are served by the countywide fire rescue services do not contribute toward the construction of new fire stations, the renovation or expansion of fire stations or the hardening of existing fire stations. The Town of Indian River Shores would not be asked for a portion of its OST funds, as the Town pays for and provides its own fire rescue services through its cross-trained Public Safety Department, though the County does back up the Indian River Shores forces in the event of a major fire.
The State of Florida distributes the OST funds to the different governments in the following way, with the figures of dollars received during 2008-2009 as an example:
County 68.6 percent
Vero Beach 18 percent
Sebastian 8.9 percent
Orchid 3.5 percent
Fellsmere 1 percent
During the current fiscal year, the county budget office estimates that the county subsidized the cities’ portion of the fire department construction projects by nearly $1.2 million that under the new plan, would have been paid for by the cities. That breaks down to $682,000 from the City of Vero Beach, $336 from the City of Sebastian, $134,000 from the Town of Orchid and $37,000 from the City of Fellsmere.
Should the cities not agree to contribute toward the infrastructure expenses for the fire stations, the County may begin including those contruction projects in the Emergency Services District budget, which would raise the millage rate in for every homeowner in the county, whether they live in the unincorporated area or within a city proper. That would leave the County’s OST funds to pay for needed road projects and other infrastructure.
Wheeler said he does not care whether the cities contribute OST money or the projects go into the Emergency Services District budget, but he does think it’s cruicial that all the city and county governments (except Indian River Shores) share the cost of building and refurbishing fire stations as they share the benefits of having those stations.
“If it’s not unanimous that the all cities will contribute part of their optional sales tax money, than it will go into the Emergency Services District,” Wheeler said.
Brown said the County plans to notify the cities soon of the issue and to elicit a response to determine the direction the County will take going forward. Brown said he does not expect the cities would look favorably upon making a contribution toward 2008-2009 expenses, as the OST dollars allotted to each City have probably either been spent or budgeted for other projects.
For the 2009-2010 budget year, should the expenditures be shifted to the Emergency Services District budget, whatever the county could not recoup from the cities would have to be taken out of the $13.4 million reserve funds the district would be left with after the operating budget is funded. The county is already slated to take approximately $600,000 out of the reserve to fund salaries for firefighters, an EMS supervisor and new staffing and equipment for the new Station 12 in Gifford.