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SEBRING — A group of citizens, aghast at possible hikes for fire protection, want county commissioners to rethink assessments before passing anything.

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, the Highlands County Board of County Commission will have a continuation of the public hearing on imposing and collecting the proposed countywide fire assessment. Scott Kirouac, Ray Royce and Frank Youngman, members of the local citrus industry, said they and other business owners and residents propose a flat fee for all developed property: a nickel per square foot.

“We want it to cost the business community a lot less than what may be charged,” Royce said.

The current proposed assessment would charge:

• $91 per year per house/apartment.

• $24 per year per vacant residential parcel.

• 15 cents per square foot for commercial use.

• 5 cents per square foot for industrial use.

• 18 cents per square foot for institutional use.

As it stands now, local commercial entities have paid flat fees for years, not based on square footage.

Kirouac and others say Government Services Group Inc. used property value data from the Highlands County Property Appraiser’s Office to calculate the assessment.

It doesn’t identify properties by land use, they said.

Applying a new method — square footage — greatly decreases that fire assessment for all commercial properties, Kirouac said.

• At 15 cents per square foot, Lakeshore Mall, which has paid $150 each year, would pay almost $72,000. Their proposal would lower that to $24,000.

• The Shops at Shelby Crossing shopping plaza, now paying $600 per year, would pay $40,000. The proposal would lower that to approximately $13,000.

• Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse, also charged $150, would pay $29,000. Their proposal would lower that to less than $10,000.

In comparison, Lowe’s in Lake Wales pays $7,500 in fire assessment, Kirouac said.

Given these numbers, Youngman said, they believe no one in GSG or the county ran the spreadsheet to see how much of a hike the new assessment would create.

Royce said the men have met individually with each county commissioner on the subject. They believe, with a nickel-per-square-foot fee, they can raise the $6-$7 million that is needed for fire service improvements and save local businesses.

For years, Highlands County has been funding fire services from the General Fund to the tune of $800,000 per year, Kirouac said, and wants to get away from that.

If they don’t, they’ll have to raise taxes, but can’t do much, he said.

The property tax rate now is $8.55 per $1,000 of taxable value. Once it goes to $10 — 10 mils — county commissioners have to start cutting.

Highlands County fire districts have had no significant changes in their assessments in 30 years, and some, like Venus Volunteer Fire Department, are close to insolvency, Kirouac said.

“We agree that they need more money,” Royce said, “(but) you shouldn’t make up for 30 years in one year.”

The highest assessments on homes have been $25 per year, Royce said. In Hardee County, he said, the fee is $149 per home. In Polk County, it’s $190-$198.

Even if the county raises the proposed residential rates each year for the next five years, Kirouac said, at $115 per year per home it’s less than Hardee County.

“I think residential is good,” Kirouac said, “but on the commercial side, they totally dropped the ball.”

Photos:

ROYCE

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