Low tax values, high homestead exemption cause financial crisis for Lealman Fire District

District to hold referendum on flat fee August 1st
Posted at 5:35 PM, Jul 04, 2017

Independence Day is often one of the busiest days of the year for firefighters, as they respond to everything from fires, to accidents to medical calls.

But Lealman Fire District in central Pinellas County also has financial concerns this holiday, and they're hoping the people they protect will help them out in an upcoming vote.

According to the department, the trouble started when the economy collapsed after 2007.

Property values in the Lealman Fire District decreased by about 42 percent, while property values have soared recently in most of Pinellas County, they've never caught up in the district.     

Lealman fire district has one of the busiest fire rescue stations in Pinellas County.

“They're probably running 18 calls a day on the average total,” said Lealman Fire Chief Rick Graham.

“That wears on equipment. You've got to replace equipment more, we've got to replace our engines because they're running so much every five years instead of every 10 to 12 years,” he said.

But while calls increase, the department is struggling financially, as revenues remain 27 percent lower than a decade ago.

In the past five years, the Lealman Fire District has spent $3 Million in reserve funds, left positions unfilled and delayed buying equipment.  

The crisis is largely the result of the fact that too few residents actually pay for fire service, due to homestead exemptions and low property values in the unincorporated Lealman community.

“On our west end, we have a lot of elderly. On our east end, we have a lot of low income,” said Chief Graham, who points out that the district includes more than 2,000 mobile homes.

The district's board is holding a vote on an annual flat fee of $56 for each residence in the district, including many of those now exempt from ad valorem taxes.

“We're talking about a small amount of money. It's a lot to some people, I give you that, $4.67 a month, they pay it once a year,” said Graham.

Some residents worry that will hurt those on fixed incomes.

“They already have a budget for the month and this, raising the taxes on will hurt that for them,” said Joaquim Robles, whose elderly mother plans to vote against the assessment.

“At the end of the day, the voters are gonna have to make up their mind whether they want to do this, or they don't want to do it and how they want to be taxed to fund their fire department,” said Graham.

Firefighters have mailed and hand delivered brochures which outline the specifics of referendum.

The vote will take place on August 1.

Any local residents who have questions can stop by the Lealman Fire department at 4360 55th Avenue North, St. Petersburg, FL to pick up a brochure or call the information line at 727-537-0213.


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