Individual fire districts within the county may now set their own Municipal Service Benefit Units (MSBU) for fire prevention and mitigation.

On Jan. 15, the county commission held a public hearing to discuss setting MSBU rates for the seven fire districts. Currently, all property owners within the county must pay a fee beginning at $10 for undeveloped land, and increasing according to use. Single-family residences pay $50 annually.

Jay Abbott, president of the countywide firefighters’ association requested commissioners pass an ordinance creating seven independent fire districts with the same boundaries as existing fire service districts, and stipulating that each could request changes in MSBU based on need.

According to County Attorney Michael Shuler, the existing districts are Apalachicola with borders defined by the Apalachicola River and the western county line; Eastpoint from the eastern bank of the Apalachicola River to; Yent’s Bayou; St. George Island; Carrabelle with boundaries at Yent’s Bayou and Lake Morality Road; Lanark Village/St. James with boundaries at Lake Morality Road and State Route 319; and Alligator Point/St. Teresa from SR 319 to the eastern county line.

Abbott told commissioners the firefighters association discussed the ordinance at both their August and September meetings and twice voted unanimously to request independent status for the MSBU districts.

Abbott, chief of the St. George Island fire department, told commissioners St. George Island needs an increase because they must have two fire stations to cover the district due to ISO requirements, which is set by the International Organization for Standardization, the world’s largest developer of voluntary international standards for such things as fire protection.

“Alligator Point has the same thing’” he said. “St. Teresa and Alligator Point both need fire stations. Our current MSBU does not cover out budget. We have to rely on donations and charitable events. We feel the MSBU should cover our budget.”

County Commissioner William Massey said he in favor of allowing St. George Islanders to vote on their MSBU rates independently but questioned how the money was being spent.

Abbott said the island fire department responds to calls every day. He said there are sometimes 10,000 visitors on the island.

“We are required by insurance to have a ladder truck,” he said. “If we don’t have a ladder truck our (ISO) rating goes from six to nine. When we went from a nine to a seven, some beach homes saved as much as $5,000.”

Abbott said the fire department has polled homeowners about the increase in MSBU on the island and got 475 yes votes and only 17 nos.

Commissioner Noah Lockley suggested putting the MSBU fee on the property tax bill. Abbott said the amount collected would still be insufficient.

Commissioner Smokey Parrish said that, as of July 2012, 262 island homeowners hadn’t paid their MSBU assessment for a total of $15,675 in uncollected funds.

Speaking for the St. George Island Civic Club, Mason Bean said that an MSBU “is the only way for to pay these rural fire departments. The increase is only two cases of beer a year.”

Island fire department board member Steve Kearney said, “We’re held hostage by Mother Nature. There was a thunderstorm (last year) and the take from the chili cook-off was down 50 percent. In an election they will vote overwhelmingly to raise the MSBU. Chili cook-off money can be used to recapitalize.”

Alligator Point Fire Chief Steve Fling said the requirement for taller houses to meet new flood requirements is forcing the Alligator Point / St. Teresa district to purchase a ladder truck and build a new station to house it.

“We need funds to be able to continue level of service to our residents,” he said. “Fortunately we have three acres that’s been donated to us so we have a step up. We’ve had committees meet and it looks like, with this increase and other funding avenues, we have enough to go forward.”

He said the new truck would cost $500,000 to $600,000, and $10,000 annually for recertification.

“I understand the need but is there a mechanism where you do a mail-in ballot?” asked Parrish. “If the people come back and say they want it I’ll vote for it.”

County Attorney Michael Shuler said the change of MSBU rate did not require a vote because the county commission has discretionary authority since the MSBU is a fee, not a tax. He recommended the board leave the ordinance, as written, He warned that requiring a ballot would force a vote on all future changes, and if a mandatory ballot is written into the ordinance, then the commission would be bound by the results of any election.

 “I want it in there in the ordinance that they cannot raise the rates arbitrarily,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders.

The commissioners instructed Shuler to make the change and voted unanimously to pass the ordinance to create the independent districts.

Kearney then formally requested the board schedule an election for Tuesday, May 14 to raise the MSBU rate for the St. George Island District from $50 to $95 annually.

Fling asked an election be scheduled on the same day for the Alligator Point/St. James District, also whether to increase the annual fee to $95.

The board voted unanimously to order the mail-out ballots contingent on there being sufficient time for constitutional officers to make the necessary arrangements.

 “Is there anything that would prevent the board from having this put on the tax bill (for next year)?” asked Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson.

“I would like the property appraiser and tax collector to be here to get their input at the next meeting about putting it on the tax bill,” Commissioner Pinki Jackel said.

“They have indicated to me that they are willing,” said Johnson.