After listening to about two hours of public comments, Sumter County commissioners Tuesday night voted unanimously not to increase the current maximum fire assessment cap of $125 per improved land parcel.
A proposed increase to $360 aroused intense opposition from more than 150 people who packed the meeting room at Everglades Recreation Center and another 50 or more who listened in an adjacent room.
The fire assessment cap sets the maximum fee that can be charged. The current cap was set in 2007 and this year’s fee was $124 per parcel. Next year’s fee will be set in July during the county budget process.
County Administrator Bradley Arnold said the fixed costs for the county’s two fire departments, one for The Villages and the other for the rest of the county, are about $25.5 million and the fire assessment covers about $8.3 million of that. The rest comes from other sources including property taxes.
Commissioners, known for split 3-2 decisions, were united in opposing any increase.
“This is extremely disadvantageous to citizens who are not well off financially,” Commissioner Oren Miller said of the proposed maximum rate hike. “I do not think we need to raise the cap at all at this time.”
Commissioner Doug Gilpin agreed and said commissioners promised not to raise taxes for five years after a controversial 24 percent tax rate increase in 2019.
“I’m going to keep that commitment,” he said. “I’m not to vote to raise any taxes. We have no need to increase this at all.”
Commissioner Craig Estep said the county should consider setting a maximum amount that the fee can be raised each year.
“I think it’s a comfort for the citizens to put a lid on that annually,” he said. “It’s a comfort to the public to know we aren’t going to slam them with an increase in July.”
After the vote, Commissioner Gary Search said commissioners listened to the people.
“Whether we agree with each other’s decisions, it’s about the people,” he said.
The crowd objected loudly when County Chairman Garry Breeden interrupted the public hearing for scheduled zoning cases and about a third of the most angry people stormed out. The hearing resumed after the cases were done.
The vote came after a succession of speakers from both rural Sumter County and The Villages blasted the proposed maximum cap increase. Some speakers said commissioners were catering too much to The Villages while others criticized the lack of fire hydrants and poor response times in rural areas.
Marjorie Wells, 90, a resident of southern Sumter County, said she was there when the county last raised the maximum fire assessment cap in 2007.
Wells said she recently spent 16 days in the hospital and 10 days in a nursing home as she successfully battled the COVID-19 virus.
“This county commission all sold out to The Villages,” she said. “We are farmers and we like where we live. We don’t want to have to move out of the county.”
Danielle Root of Lake Panasoffkee said the money should come from The Villages since Villagers and future Villagers will benefit the most.
“I don’t understand why you are going to ask every single person for the money when it’s going to be handed to The Villages,” she said.
Charlie Jacobs of Wildwood said the fee is “the way of having the poor people pay for us not having a state income tax.”
Linda Miller and Ivory Gray of Oxford said there is no way they could afford to pay an annual fire assessment of over $300.
Delbert Crosby and Kenneth Noble said county officials should address problems of substandard service and sending too many trucks to some incidents.
“I want the proper service for what I am paying for,” Noble said.