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The Villages
Sunday, May 19, 2024

Commissioners favor $22.9 million option to improve fire service levels

Sumter County commissioners will vote next week to restore stipends and educational reimbursements to firefighters effective April 1.

The stipends were suspended due to last year’s budget crisis.

At a workshop meeting Tuesday night, they also voiced support for a $22.9-million option to increase the Sumter County Fire Department’s service levels in next year’s budget.

The Villages Public Safety Department Dependent District Board is working on a plan to cover fire and ambulance costs for that department, which provides fire and ambulance services to The Villages.

Sumter County Fire Chief Rob Hanson presented three options to commissioners for next year’s funding.

Due to the budget crisis, he said the department currently must juggle staff to cover both ambulances and fire engines and impose mandatory overtime to maintain minimum staffing.

Hanson said the department staffs four ambulances. When two more are needed during peak times, engines are left without staff, which affects service in rural areas near the county’s edges.

Last week, the department reduced the number of staffed engines to seven from nine. Fire response times are over 16 minutes in some areas.

When a water supply truck is needed, another engine is taken out of service.

“We know it’s not sustainable,” County Administrator Bradley Arnold said of the current staffing levels.

Commissioners endorsed a plan to add 29 positions for a total of 144. It would increase engine staffing from two firefighters to three or four while fully staffing six ambulances and the water supply trucks. Hanson also presented two less expensive options with fewer employees.

Commissioner Andrew Bilardello suggested the department could consider using volunteers, which could supplement full-time staffing.

Commissioner Don Wiley said he would join other commissioners in supporting the more expensive option, but warned that it would depend on funding through fire assessment fees and property tax revenue.

“It’s going to have a significant impact on our residents and businesses,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to make a decision and can’t be put in the trap we were in last year.”

A study last year recommended calculating commercial and industrial fire assessment fees based on square footage, which prompted an outcry from business owners who said their annual fees could reach $40,000 or more.

Commissioners scrapped the plan to hike fire assessments, which caused severe cuts in both fire department budgets.

The same company will complete another study by May with recommendations on how to finance the department.

Firefighters agreed last year to forego a 6.5 percent cost-of-living increase and stipends so layoffs could be avoided.

Mike Laming, firefighters’ union vice president, reminded commissioners that the union and employees made sacrifices to address the budget crisis. He encouraged them to adopt the option that fully staffs the department.

 “Adequate staffing of our fire and EMS is essential,” he said, adding that commissioners should not use the fire department to help balance other parts of the budget.

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