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The Villages
Friday, October 15, 2021

Sumter County and The Villages battling over $2 to $5 million in fire department funding

The work begins now that Sumter County commissioners have decided to replace private ambulances provided by American Medical Response (AMR) with ambulances operated by each of the county’s two fire departments by late next year.

Wiliam Gulbrandsen
Wiliam Gulbrandsen

Former Sumter County fire chief William Gulbrandsen, who advocated for fire department based ambulance services a decade ago, said the departments face the challenges of buying ambulances, adding personnel and cross-training employees.

These efforts come at a time of rising tension over county funding of The Villages Fire Department and over a move create an independent fire district for The Villages.

Last week, commissioners voted to move ahead with an aggressive effort to resolve the fire department funding dispute that could lead to a lawsuit.

In a Sept. 21 letter to Villages District Manager Richard Baier, County Chairman Garry Breeden wrote that the county will withhold 2022 funding for The Villages Fire Department until the matter is resolved.

The county claims that The Villages owes $2 to $5 million by violating an agreement to return unused money to the county. Instead, Breeden wrote, the fire department used the county funding first before amenity fees so there would be nothing to return.

A February 2019 agreement for fire services requires that leftover funds be returned to the county, excluding any other source of revenue. But it does not seem to specify that Sumter County funds cannot be spent first.

The confrontational approach to the funding dispute comes as The Villages Center Community Development District (VCCCD) is weighing a proposal to establish an independent fire district, which could levy its own taxes and cover all three counties of the The Villages.

Earlier this month, the VCCCD board heard a consultant lay out a plan for creating the district.

Baier said he hopes the county’s aggressive approach on the funding dispute is unrelated to the independent fire district plan.

“We do not believe the (VCCCD) is in violation,” he said.

Gulbrandsen said the idea of returning unused funds dates back two decades to when the county initiated a fire protection assessment paid by property owners to help finance volunteer fire departments.

He said the move to create an independent fire district could be a “pipe dream” because it requires state and county approval.

In Florida, Gulbrandsen said, counties have authority over what entity provides fire and emergency medical services by granting certificates of conveyance.

Even if Sumter County were to approve the independent district, Lake and Marion counties may reject it because they would lose funding for ambulance transport in those portions of The Villages.

Gulbrandsen also said it won’t be easy for the fire departments to equip themselves to provide ambulance services even though firefighters already are paramedics or emergency medical technicians.

“It’s going to be a monumental task for both departments to be up and running in a year,” he said. “Each department is going to have to increase their staffing to provide the service that’s needed.”

He suggested that each department add two employees to oversee recruitment, hiring and training, adding that each department may have to increase its staffing by at least 50 percent.

Hiring paramedics and emergency medical technicians now employed by AMR is feasible, but they would need cross-training to certify as firefighters.

Up to 20 ambulances also may be needed, Gulbrandsen said. One ambulance for every 10,000 people is the usual standard, but The Villages may need more due to its older population. Spare ambulances also will be required.

The tab could be $6 million or more at an estimated cost of $300,000 per equipped rig.

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