Sumter County struggles to hire new firefighters after commissioners reject fee increases

The Sumter County Commission has voted against raising the fire assessment fee for residents and local businesses. With the area growing fast, the two local fire departments are now trying to figure out how to keep everyone safe.

Commissioners rejected the fire fee increases after a heated discussion at the latest county commission meeting. Residents spoke their minds. 

"We're going to pay again. Not only are we going to pay on our dwellings, we're going to pay when we go to the store, when we go for any kind of services. And that's all I've got to say," said one audience member.

Both Sumter County Fire and EMS and the Villages Public Safety Department fight fires in Sumter County, with the county funding both agencies. For homeowners, the proposed fire assessment fee would have risen from $124 per year to about $323. Commercial property owners would have been assessed at 53.9 cents per square foot.

These rates hadn’t changed in about 17 years, but some residents said it was too much. "The proposal was not well thought-through. The base of how things were calculated, per-plot rather than per-value is the root issue they haven't addressed, yet," said Villages resident David Moline.

Without the money, the departments won't be able to hire more staff or buy more equipment in a part of central Florida that's rapidly growing. If it had passed, the Villages planned to hire 57 new firefighters and the county hoped to bring on 25 more, along with new trucks and ambulances. Now officials said they may even have to lay off some firefighters.

"The Villages Public Safety Dept. and their district manager, as well as our County Administrator and Fire Chief for Sumter County, now have to go back and adjust what their budget requests are to try and fit within the price we have available to us without the increase," said Craig Estep, Sumter County Commission Chair.

County and Villages officials will meet at the start of next month, to come up with a new plan for the fire departments. Currently, Sumter County has 115 firefighters and EMS techs, 18 trucks, and 7 ambulances. The Villages has 150 firefighters and EMTs, 8 trucks, and 9 ambulances. With about four thousand new homes going up there every year, Estep said they would do their best to keep people safe.

"Our goal is to keep the people safe," Estep said, "to be able to respond and give the services they need. Sometimes people want, but may not want to pay for it. In this case, we want to provide the service to keep people safe."