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Questions remain unanswered on Lee fire plan

LEESBURG — Lee County commissioners affirmed Tuesday night their commitment to making improvements in fire protection services.

What remains unclear is specifics on how that might happen, how long it will take, how much it will cost and how those expenses will be paid.

Skip Starling, a consultant with National Fire Services Office, was expected to give a report to commissioners Tuesday night, but was unable to attend and provide some of those answers.

The lack of a defined plan has some taxpayers concerned.

“I’ve gotten a lot of calls from constituents who want to know what the entire plan looks like,” said Commissioner Ed Duffy, who also said residents want to know how the county plans to finance the improvements and what impact it will have on taxpayers.

“I tell them there are four or five ways we can pay,” Duffy said.

The options, according to Duffy, include money from special-purpose local-option sales taxes, drawing from the county’s reserve fund, initiating a fire fee or raising taxes.

“We need to know where we are going,” Duffy said.

Interim County Administrator Lynn Taylor said, “Having been down this route before … I would imagine it would be a combination of some of those things.”

The least likely option would be a tax increase, according to some commissioners.

“We have to stay within our means and work with what we’ve got,” said Commissioner Luke Singletary, adding that he, too, had received calls from residents wanting clarity on the fire issue.

“We are working toward an end goal,” Singletary said. “It doesn’t all happen tomorrow, or next week. It may be a five-year plan, or a seven-year plan. We have to prioritize things we can do. Is it two used fire trucks this year, a new fire station next year, or turnout gear the third year?

“People get a little bit of information and start making assumptions.”

Commission Chairman Rick Muggridge, who said he was unaware Starling was not going to be at the meeting until Tuesday, agreed that commissioners need “more tangible numbers.”

Taylor said Starling had to be in Colorado for a business meeting, but should be able to appear before the commission in October.

The fire protection issue has consumed much of the commission’s time and energy this year. Under Starling’s guidance, the county combined the fire department and emergency medical services unit into the Department of Public Safety.

EMS personnel have begun training to become certified firefighters, a process Taylor said is going “extremely well.”

Starling also has proposed a number of substations that would be manned by a yet-to-be-formed volunteer force. Initially, Starling said the county, could build two new substations and purchase two fire engines.

He was asked earlier this month to appear at this week’s meeting to give more specific information of the costs association with his recommendation.

Taylor agreed that “it is time to get a plan of action” and said more specific numbers likely will be available by the commission’s first meeting in October.