The city manager, with guidance of consulting groups, has persuaded six of seven councilmembers to adopt a fire fee ordinance which increases the burden on property owners by $2.5 million, a 40% increase in a single year.

The city manager, with guidance of consulting groups, has persuaded six of seven councilmembers to adopt a fire fee ordinance which increases the burden on property owners by $2.5 million, a 40% increase in a single year.

Why do we oppose the “fire fee”?

Because it is based upon a false premise, namely that we have a public safety deficiency.

This premise has not been properly discussed and certainly not proven. We believe we have public safety departments providing good and adequate service. We have examined ISO reports for all recent times. The ISO report is the only independent evaluation of the fire department. It identifies no substantial deficiencies. Our discussions with council reveal that they had not even examined this report, which is likely the best and only relevant information available on the subject.

What is evident from our brief analysis of the public safety issue is that our city manager, and the leadership of the Fire and Police departments, have as their goal total independence from other public safety departments in our county. Rather than benefiting from assistance when needed from other fire departments, all of which services are rendered for no charge, Fort Walton Beach prefers to continue to add equipment and personnel expense. We believe the City’s public safety needs are being adequately met by current operations supplemented by longstanding inter-local agreements by which others assist the city and the city assist them on an as needed basis.

Because of the Deceptive Process

Even if the City had a public safety issue, the manner and process by which the city manager has attempted to adopt the fire assessment ordinance and the yet to be adopted fire assessment resolution is deceptive. Had our group not challenged the process, the very first notice property owners and tenants would have received would have been the receipt of their October utility bill. The decision was made not to follow the normal taxing process which would have provided a property owner a TRIM notice informing of any increased charge to your property and an opportunity to challenge such increase. Instead it was decided to add the fee to your monthly utility bill.

While labeled a fire fee, the City Manager could only find items on which to spend an additional $1,006,000 on the Fire Department, so why is the fire fee assessment $2,500,000? It is because he needed a means by which he could find funds to accomplish his longstanding goal of increasing city employee pay and benefits, and hiring additional policemen, absolutely nothing to do with the fire department. Call it what you want, a scam, a fraud or a shell game. The numbers do not lie and when confronted both your city manager and your council have admitted our analysis of this matter is accurate.

Because it is a Wasteful and Unnecessary Expenditure

We have compared the cost of services provided by FWB Fire Department to other fire departments. It is clear that FWB Fire department is not operated efficiently and that cost savings should be addressed rather than adding to the cost as now proposed by the imposition of the Fire Fee.

One such comparison we have made compares FWB Fire Department to Ocean City Wright Fire Department. Ocean City Wright is supported by an ad valorem tax millage rate of 2.75 mills while it would take 4.08 mills in FWB to cover the current fire budget.

Most relevant to an analysis of the effort to continually grow our public safety departments is an analysis of the growth of our City. In 1990 our City’s population was 21,471 and in 2018 it was 22,284; an increase of 813 in 28 years. Our fire budget has grown from $3.81 million to the now projected $5.87 million, a 54% increase in just 9 years.

How Does the Fire Assessment Fee Impact You and What Can You Do?

On October 22nd at 6:00 PM your council is meeting to vote on a resolution that proposes an annual fire fee of $160 on every residence, including apartments, hotel rooms and condominium units regardless of size or value; a fee of 17 cents per square foot on commercial properties and 4 cents per square foot on industrial/warehouse properties.

We hope that at least three of the six council now supporting the fire fee will realize they have been misguided by the city manager on an issue that we believe is opposed by virtually all of their constituents and will instead vote to extinguish the fire fee. If they do not do so our group has assured them that their action will be challenged in court, that we will commence an action to amend the city charter to preclude similar deception in the future and will most certainly participate actively in the next election cycles to restore sanity and conservative fiscal responsibility to the governance of our City.

We hope that if you agree with us you will find a way to demonstrate your opposition to the fire fee. We need and welcome your participation.

Bob Lee is a member of the FWB Watch Group.