July 17, 2019

KEY LARGO — The local fire and emergency medical services commission has informally decided to make the “big ask” on next year’s election ballot for voters to raise the current cap on property taxes.

A possible 100 percent cap increase was discussed during last week’s strategic planning meeting. The district has been taxing at the maximum level for the past few years and says additional funds are needed to ensure quality of service.

The Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District’s enabling legislation can exceed the current one-mil cap, or $100 for every $100,000 of assessed land value, only with voter approval.

If that approval is secured at the ballot box, the district could raise taxes up to $375 for every $100,000 of assessed land value without another public referendum, according to its legal counsel.

Though it is unlikely the board would adopt that maximum millage rate, district finance managers did advise raising the cap to two mils, or $200 for every $100,000 of assessed value.

“It’s a big ask and it’s not something you want to ask every five years,” finance manager Jennifer Johnson said. “It could be another 10 or 11 years before we use it.”

She pointed out that it took the district 12 years to reach the one-mil cap.

Hypothetically, the district board might elect to impose a 1.25 mil tax initially.

“It has to be explained that this will be a progression over the next few years,” Johnson said.

“It’s important for us to bring this up now and start talking to the constituents. What’s the maximum that you would need in the foreseeable future. You’re asking for permission to go to that amount if needed,” attorney Gaelan Jones said.

“We are months out from taking any official action. In the meantime, you can begin exploring with constituents what the temperature is.”

Commissioner Frank Conklin, who has opposed raising taxes, said, “We also need to figure out where we are going to be in five years with a business plan.”

Commissioner Bob Thomas said a two-mil cap, as recommended by the finance managers, sounds like good logic.

The vote to place a referendum on next year’s ballot must be approved by a majority vote of the board commissioners.

Other topics discussed during the planning session included possibly receiving capital improvement money from Monroe County’s one-cent sales tax fund. Commissioner Tony Allen said paying for improvements to Station 24 would be a good use of the funds.

“There’s no guarantee that we’ll get this funding. If we get only a small portion, we can do phases,” he said. “Having the building be brought up to standards and separate quarters are some of the things we need to look at.”

In 2009, the former fire department obtained an estimate for building housing dorms above the station.

“It was just under $1 million, and that was a decade ago, so it’s going to be more,” Allen said.

The district has received $150,000 in restricted funds to install more fire hydrants.

The district has 275 hydrants, though some areas of the island can’t be outfitted with hydrants due to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority pipes not being large enough to accommodate such use.

The next Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, July 22, at station 24 located at 1 East Drive in Key Largo. For more information, visit klfirerescueems.com.

tjava@keysnews.com