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Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
Fire-EMS taxes likely to rise

KEY LARGO -- Key Largo property owners could be looking at a higher tax rate for fire-EMS services next year, though opinions slightly differ on how much and why.

Earlier this year, the Key Largo Fire-EMS District severed its contract with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department and directed the Ambulance Corps to form a new fire department.

That department is currently functioning under the leadership of the Ambulance Corps. The fire district taxes residents and uses those funds to contract with not-for-profit emergency response organizations for services.

With a split 3-2 vote on the move, board members Tony Allen and Jennifer Miller, who objected to the change, argued the transition would force the district to raise taxes. Board members Bob Thomas, Marilyn Beyer and George Mirabella said it wouldn't.

Now with next year's tentative tax rate set at $100 for every $100,000 of assessed property value, and board members saying it's unlikely to be whittled down as low as this year's rate of $79.01 per $100,000, transition costs resurfaced at last week's Fire-EMS Board meeting.

Miller questioned whether the transition was to blame for higher taxes.

Jennifer Zimmer, the district's accountant, said it had no effect, instead noting that the district has been keeping taxes down by digging into reserves, a practice that cannot continue indefinitely.

"This has absolutely nothing to do with the new department," said Thomas, who opposes further reducing reserves.

Meanwhile, the new fire department will contract with new legal representation after attorney Jack Bridges stepped down earlier this month. Bridges, who continues to represent the Ambulance Corps, told the Free Press that he never intended to work permanently for both departments.

The district has agreed to pay Bridges $4,800 in fees he accrued during the transition.

Also currently in the budget are pay increases for all employees of both departments.

And with less than a month to go, a lease agreement between the district and the former fire department has yet to be worked out. The district owns Fire Station 24, but the old department owns the land and a neighboring building. A temporary lease is expected to expire Sept. 9.

The district has budget workshops scheduled for Sept. 9 and Sept. 16.

jgore@keysnews.com

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