Taking the first step toward creation of a dependent fire district for The Villages, Sumter County commissioners voted Tuesday night to open an application process for the district board.
Applications for the five-member board likely will be accepted through October with appointments by commissioners in November. An ordinance establishing the dependent district probably will be considered in late November or early December. The district would become effective in October 2024.
Commissioners also decided that two appointed board members would face election in 2024 and the other three in 2026.
They also approved a $1 increase per parcel in the annual county fire assessment fee, raising it to $125, the maximum allowed under a current cap.
The fire department actions came without County Chairman Craig Estep, who was hospitalized.
Last fall, voters rejected a referendum to establish an independent district for The Villages. A dependent district can levy taxes and exert more control over its finances, but remains under county oversight.
The Villages Public Safety Department (VPSD) provides fire and emergency medical services in The Villages while the Sumter County Fire Department offers those services to part of Wildwood, smaller cities and rural areas.
A decision to open the application process came after a motion by Commissioner Roberta Ulrich to appoint candidates recommended by Villages District Manager Kevin Blocker died for lack of a second. Blocker’s candidates will be considered with other applicants.
Commissioner Jeffrey Bogue, who earlier suggested that each commissioner appoint a candidate from their district, said he supported opening the application process to any Villagers as a compromise.
Arguing that appointing the candidates recommended by Blocker would speed the process, Commissioner Don Wiley later did not support Ulrich’s motion.
“I don’t think we should be spoon-fed candidates by the (Villages) district,” said Commissioner Andrew Bilardello. “There might be better people out there.”
To reduce the impact of losing higher fire assessment fees, commissioners voted to allow both fire departments to collect fees for annual business inspections and hazardous materials incident responses.
In August, they rejected the higher fees based on square footage for non-residential property after business owners complained at a public hearing that their fees could be $40,000 or more. Rejecting the fees caused multi-million-dollar budget deficits in both departments.
To avoid layoffs, the firefighters union agreed to forego an 8.7 percent cost-of-living increase and training stipends.
Commissioners voted to allow the VPSD to use funds designated for capital expenses to reduce the operating deficit.
The Sumter County department will use spare ambulances from Citrus County after American Medical Response (AMR) announced it would pull staff and three ambulances from the county at the end of September.
The Citrus County ambulances became available after new vehicles were delivered. AMR had a three-year transition contract to aid the switch to county-operated ambulances.