Fee aims to bolster fire service

Mexico Beach residents will see a new fee on their property tax bills this year, a fee aimed at funding the expansion of fire service.

The City Council on Tuesday approved a final resolution putting in place for the coming year a fire assessment to fund an expansion of the city’s fire department, including a half dozen paid firefighters.

The ultimate goal is to bring down the city’s ISO rating, which impacts the fire portion of property and homeowners insurance, which is set to double within the year.

The final assessment rates adopted represent 79 percent of those cited in the initial fire assessment resolution taken up by the council earlier this year.

The city will collect $642,254 under the final resolution, down from $812,987, according to documents provided as part of the resolution.

Residential property owners will pay an annual assessment of $281 (originally $350); commercial property owners 40 cents per square foot (originally 50 cents); and owners of vacant land will pay $43 per year.

The fire assessment fees will be attached as part of ad valorem tax bills sent each year to property owners based on land values of Jan. 1.

The fire assessment was retroactive to the beginning of the current fiscal year.

The city started down the path to Tuesday’s meeting last September, when the ISO (Insurance Service Office) fire insurance rating agency, a for-profit agency which sells its calculations of risk to insurance companies, notified officials the city’s ISO would double from 5 to 10.

The higher the number the more, in theory, insurance rates could climb, though use and application of ISO ratings vary across the country.

One issue noted by the ISO, an issue nearly all volunteer fire departments in the area struggle with, was the lack of certified firefighters.

On any structure fire, four certified firefighters must be present.

The city, like many other areas locally, may have sufficient numbers on any given call, but having sufficient certified firefighters is the struggle, with completing training hours the major hiccup.

According to information provided at workshops, the city hopes to hire six full-time firefighters.

In recent years, Mexico Beach has averaged less than a structure fire per month.

There were 10 total in 2017, 11 the prior year, 10 in 2015 and four in 2014, according to information provided by the city.

And, the department as a whole fielded less than a call per day last year.

The city’s Emergency Services Director (fire chief), Daniel Simmons, arrived last September at the same time the ISO service was notifying the city of the anticipated rise in rating.

Simmons is qualified to instruct the Firefighter I training course.

The process leading to Tuesday’s final resolution included the adoption of an assessment roll, or those properties benefiting from fire service, as well as an ordinance, first and second reading, and a public workshop earlier this month.

The city is embarking into territory which is foreign to most communities its size.

According to the National Fire Academy under the U.S. Fire Service, a division of FEMA, nationwide fewer than 1 percent of the firefighters in communities with a population of 2,500 people or less are paid.

In that respect, Mexico Beach, which currently has one paid employee, Simmons, it is on track with national demographics, according to the NFA website.

Nationwide, according to the NFA, of the 1.6 million firefighters nationwide, over 345,600 are career firefighters while over 814,850 are volunteers.

Among fire stations across the country, 67 percent are all volunteer; 6 percent are a mix of paid and volunteer and just 9 percent are paid departments.