Belt-tightening measures will avert Sumter County firefighter layoffs, County Administrator Bradley Arnold told commissioners Tuesday night.
Commissioners gave tentative approval to a 2023-24 property tax rate of about $5.19 per $1,000 assessed valuation and a proposed $386.8-million budget. Final budget adoption is scheduled Sept. 26 after another public hearing. The fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
By informal consensus, commissioners also directed Arnold to take steps toward creation of a dependent fire district for the Villages Public Safety Department (VPSD). A dependent district would offer the VPSD greater control over its finances while remaining under county authority.
The VPSD provides fire and rescue services in The Villages while the Sumter County department provides service in Wildwood outside The Villages, smaller cities and rural areas.
Sumter County Fire Chief Rob Hanson said last month he might have to lay off 30 firefighters after commissioners rejected substantial increases proposed for fire assessment fees that were strongly opposed at a public hearing.
“There are no layoffs in the budget,” Arnold said, adding that he has worked with union and department officials to make up the deficit caused by the lost fire assessment fees.
To save jobs, Hanson said firefighters have agreed to forego an 8.7 percent cost-of-living increase for county employees as well as some training stipends.
The fire chief also said he will reduce staffing to two or three firefighters per vehicle, down from three or four.
Last week, American Medical Response (AMR) announced it would end a transition contract at the end of September, removing staff and three ambulances. AMR will continue to lease four ambulances to the county.
Hanson said he will acquire three used ambulances from Citrus County to replace the AMR units until Sumter County has ambulances delivered.
Creating a dependent district for the VPSD would allow it to levy taxes and operate with its own board. County commissioners would retain final approval over the district’s tax levy and budget. Establishing the district would require passage of a county ordinance.
Commissioner Jeffrey Bogue said he supported the dependent district, but suggested that commissioners assemble a wide array of applicants for the governing board.
Last year, voters rejected creation of an independent district for the VPSD that would have been free of county control.
Next week, commissioners are expected to approve a $1 increase in the current $124 fire assessment fee, the maximum allowed under a current cap. They also will consider an ordinance to allow the VPSD to use restricted capital revenue to address the operational deficit. Fees also will be imposed for annual fire inspections for businesses and hazardous materials responses.
The $386.8-million budget is down a July expenditure estimate of $441 million, which included the higher fire assessment fees.
Arnold said the tax rate of $5.19 per $1,000 assessed valuation, down from $5.59 this year, is the lowest rate ever for the county. It is slightly less than the rolled-back rate, the amount needed to collect the same revenue as the prior year except for new construction.
Sumter County is expected to collect $101.3 million in total property tax revenue in 2023-24, up from $95 million this year.