Fire district raises ambulance fees; disbands advisory board

Aug 23, 2011

The following article was published in the Leheigh Acres Citizen on August 23, 2011:

Fire District raises ambulance fees; disbands advisory board

By Mel Toadvine

Despite pleas by at least two of the half dozen members of the Lehigh Acres Fire Department’s Fire Assessment Fee Board to keep it active, members of the board of commissioners have chosen to abolish it and took such action last week to disband the board following a motion by Commission member Kevin Shea and second by David Adams.

It was a unanimous vote by the four commissioners present at the Aug. 18 meeting. Commissioner Linda Carter was not at the meeting.

Advisory Board members Cathy Kruse and Ralph Hemingway each spoke before the group, each making comments about the future of the Lehigh Acres Fire Department because of its financial woes.

Hemingway at the beginning of the meeting insisted the advisory board be continued.

“If you don’t you won’t a department,” Hemingway said.

Kruse, who was chairman of the advisory board, said it was set up for failure.

The fire assessment fee could not move forward when it reported most of the members on the panel were against an assessment fee to keep the fire department afloat after next summer. Earlier polls taken by one of the advisory board members indicated that there was no desire by residents to pay an additional fee for fire protection, no more than the ad valorem tax of 3 mills which had been established by board last month.

With falling revenues from less tax income due to most homes in Lehigh worth less than they were a year ago, the fire department is facing the likelihood of going broke if it cannot find additional income.

While some other business was conducted during the 90-minute meeting held at the Microtel Inn, the overall topic was the future of the fire department. Only several firefighters attended the meeting. Members of the public rarely show up for the monthly meetings, which has led some commissioners privately wondering if the community cares if it loses its fire department.

With comments such as “the community will come knocking on your door,” and “the board is showing a lack of leadership,” Commissioner Shea summed up the problem when he told board members and those who had served on the assessment advisory board, that “from all accounts, the people of Lehigh won’t support an additional assessment fee.”

“There is no interest from our legislative delegation to come up with a bill which is what has to happen before an assessment bill can be happen here. There would have to be a sponsor of such a bill in the Florida Senate and another sponsor of a bill in the Florida House.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said

Shea noted that when the Safer Grant runs out on Aug. 13, 2012, some 46 people will lose their jobs. He used that figure as one that came from Chief Don Adams during a workshop held earlier in the day, prior to the general monthly meeting, he said.

The fire district will have to take $2.4 million from its surplus to operate next year’s budget. After that, Shea said when the rest is gone, nobody knows where the income will come from to operate a fire department.

Board Attorney Richard Pringle, was asked what will happen when the department goes broke?

“You will have to notify the state of finances through the governor’s office which will evaluate the situation and they could take action to remedy. There is a lot of latitude to recommend from the situation,” he said.

Shea asked Pringle if there were any prohibitions legally from adding one person to a truck as a volunteer firefighter to fill a shortage.

Pringle said he was not aware of any legal prohibition to such a situation.

In an effort to increase revenue for the fire department, Chief Don Adams asked that the ambulance transport fees be raised to match the current rates of Lee County EMS. The board agreed to his proposal.

Adams said that after being tabled at the July fire board meeting, he was requesting that commissioners review the ambulance transport fees from the existing fee schedule and use them to be consistent with Lee County EMS and Fort Myers Beach Fire Rescue ambulance fees.

He said that Florida statutes authorizes the commissioners to establish and charge user fees in amounts necessary to conduct district activities and services. And if such action were to take place, it had to be done now or wait another year.

The increase would include such items as ambulance basic life support with a new rate of $525 up from the current $400 charge. That is a 31.25 percent increase. It would raise mileage fees from $9 to $10.

Adams gave commissioners a current ambulance service transport fees report that showed ambulance advanced life supports that now cost users $500 would raise to $650, a 30 percent hike in price. Advance life support runs would go from $650 to $700.

He noted that Medicare pays the following rates which will remain unchanged:

$476.38 for advanced life support; $329.14 for basic life support and advanced life support, and $277.17 for inter-facility, ground ambulance non-emergency runs.

In the report presented by Chief Adams, it noted that Medicaid and Medicare do not pay treat-non transport fees.

The new rates will be effective immediately. More information on ambulance transport fees can be found at: Click on the link for the Aug. 18 packet.

Commissioner Larry Becker and Commissioner Chairman Jeff Berndt made the motion to accept the new fees schedule.

Another topic for discussion at the meeting included a discussion of the need for fire commissioners to oversee committees in area such as building and grounds, equipment, fiscal policy, policies and procedure, negotiations, fire prevention, suppression, EMS, personnel, publicity, administration, training and accident review.

Becker during discussion said the district had the fire chief and his assistants who are doing the job to the best of their knowledge.

“Personally, I do not think we need committees to oversee these areas,” Becker said.

Commissioner Shea agreed with Becker, noting that Fire chief Adams is the “executive officer” of the department.

Toward the end of the meeting Hemingway and Kruse again addressed the commissioners. Kruse, looking the commissioners each one straight into their eyes, said they lacked leadership.

“There just isn’t any leadership from you,” she said.

Hemingway noted that when firefighters are laid off again next August when the Safer grant runs out, local home insurance rates will skyrocket. Hemingway, who is retired, has a background is in the insurance business.

Fire Chief Don Adams will be faced with another layoff when the Safer grant runs out but he said the department would file for another Safer grant “as soon as it is published,” which means when applications for another grant are announced.

If another grant is not received, Commissioner Shea has warned that the department will go broke.

Cathy Kruse told commissioners they needed to work together “to educate” the community as to the consequences if the fire department is drastically cut or becomes insolvent.

“You need to visit local clubs and organizations and get the message out to the people,” she said.

One of the commissioners noted that there is “no grassroots” movement in Lehigh Acres to come up with any more money to support the department which serves a population of 87,000 people, according to last year’s U.S. Census.

And Shea reminded everyone that no support is forthcoming from the legislation delegation to get help from Tallahassee.

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