Setting the stage for creation of fire department based ambulance services, Sumter County commissioners Tuesday endorsed an independent fire district for The Villages and voted to end a county funding dispute.
They also approved a fire service map that defines areas covered by The Villages and Sumter County fire departments. They voted to terminate 2019 Villages-county agreements on fire station leasing and fleet services with plans for a new agreement effective Oct. 1, 2022.
Commissioners voted last month to create separate ambulance services within each department when the current contract with private provider American Medical Response (AMR) expires in about a year.
The county actions came after speakers supported the independent district during the public forum portion of the meeting.
An independent district means The Villages Fire Department would have its own taxing authority and governing board, although the department would need an operational certificate from the county.
Creating the district requires state and county approval. To serve the entire Villages, the independent district also would need approval of Lake and Marion counties.
A referendum on the plan would be scheduled for late next year at the earliest and the department would need to operate under agreement with the county during the interim period.
Resolving the county funding dispute proved the most difficult with County Chairman Garry Breeden in favor of pressing the issue.
A 2019 agreement requires The Villages to return unspent county funding and county officials claimed the department spent Sumter County money first instead of amenity fee revenue so there would be no money to return. The county provides about 90 percent of the funding for The Villages Public Safety Department.
Villages officials interpret the agreement differently and disagree that money is owed to the county.
Breeden said the county could recoup $2.7 million if it prevails.
“The (dispute) process should be followed,” he said. “This board can say we have been good stewards of taxpayer money.”
County Administrator Bradley Arnold said the next step would be for the county to file a lawsuit, which could harm the transition process to fire based ambulance services.
Breeden was unable to persuade other commissioners and the vote was 4-1 to approve the four action items.
“To me, it’s a bigger picture issue,” said Commissioner Doug Gilpin in support of ending the funding dispute. “We’re talking about shaping the history of Sumter County.”
Before voting to approve the four items, Commissioner Oren Miller said he opposed reassigning a fire station used by The Villages to the Sumter County department.
Arnold said the station is needed for coverage of Coleman and other areas outside The Villages.
Public forum speakers including Villages Fire Chief Edmund Cain and District Manager Richard Baier asked commissioners to support an independent fire district.
“This is a historical decision that will improve patient outcomes throughout Sumter County,” Cain said.
Fred Briggs of the Villages Homeowners Association said the group’s 25,000 members also support an independent district.