“Most people don’t understand that once the money is gone, so are we,” said Southwest Lee County Fire Chief Daniel Haden. “This vote will actually renew the fire fee because once this legislation’s 25-year lifespan runs out, we won’t receive any more funds.”
An open forum concerning this legislation was conducted at the town meeting held on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Loachapoka Community Center on U.S. Highway 14.
Volunteer fire fighters and board members from the Southwest Lee County Fire Protection Authority facilitated the meeting with many Lee County residents in attendance.
The fee was established in 1987 at $25 per structure per year with a 25-year limit, leaving it to expire at the end of this fiscal year.
This fee covered the expenses necessary to keep a fire house running, including covering the cost of truck upkeep and uniforms.
If the vote is successful, the fee will double, increasing the annual fire fee to $50 per structure per year.
Haden said if this vote for an increase is not passed, the department would have to solely rely on fundraising and donations.
“Unfortunately, those two means of income are not enough to run a fire department,” Haden said. “The current $25 fee covers the bare minimum of what it takes to run a fire department.”
Haden said this increase would catch the Lee County Volunteer Fire Department up with current times.
“Back in 1987, we were paying $0.40 per gallon for diesel fuel. Now, we’re paying upwards of $4 per gallon, which is a six hundred per cent increase,” Haden said.
“Another example is that 25 years ago, the cost of a fire truck was in the ball park of $100,000. Now, one fire truck costs between $300,000 and $500,000 depending on what you get. One of the trucks we’re having to use now is over 20 years old, and our other one is from the 90s. These are just a couple examples of how our costs have gone up, and why we’re asking for the increase.”
Southwest Deputy Fire Chief Jeremy Jones said the fire department is asking for a minimum amount compared to the rest of the country.
“The national average for fire protection services is somewhere in the neighborhood of $125 per structure per year,” Jones said. “So we’re still way below that. We felt after careful calculations that $50 was the lowest amount we could increase the fee to insure that we would be able to provide proper services to our community.”
Haden said the fee should be closer to that $125 range, but that he and his fellow fire fighters felt that the $50 is sufficient for now and is in the voters’ best interest.
“The important thing to emphasize is that this vote is for a renewal of the fire fee,” Jones said. “Yes, it concerns the increase to $50, but if this vote is turned down and we stop receiving funding in October, our department is going to go under.”
If the fee increase wins the vote, its lifespan will be renewed for another 25 years, ending September 2036.
The majority of the people volunteering their time as fire fighters for Lee County are Auburn students and Auburn graduates.
“This department had student fire fighters before the city of Auburn did,” said Bob Schafer, board member and advocate for the fire fee renewal and increase. “Out of our 27 members, most of those are students. These are young people who grew up with fire fighters in their families. They’ve been around it their whole lives. So, when they came to Auburn they were looking for a way to get involved. We’re lucky to have them.”
Schafer said this election will be run just like any other election, and that it will be clear to the registered voters what they are voting on.
“In the past, this legislation was clumped together with other pertinent issues at one time. So when the residents voted ‘no’ on the ballot with a whole lot of other issues they didn’t agree with listed on it, they also voted ‘no’ on the fire fee renewal,” Schafer said. “We’re holding a separate election for this fire fee renewal so the people know exactly what they are voting for.”
Haden also said it is a common misconception that this fire department is owned by the county.
“Lee County does not own this volunteer fire department,” Schafer said. “It is operated by a board of directors that is not affiliated with local government at all. We serve Lee County, but we are not owned by Lee County.”
Schafer said it is critical for voters to cast their vote as “yes.”
“Bottom line is I believe the board is committed to shutting down the volunteer fire department is the fee isn’t upped to $50,” Schafer said.
For more information on this legislation, including how to register to vote, visit www.LeeCountyFireFee.org, or contact Haden at (334) 728-6323.