A 400-acre brush fire swept through Lehigh Acres on Friday, April 21, 2017.

Lehigh Acres Fire District seeks money to build new station

A growing community means officials need more resources to keep you safe. But after voters said no to a tax increase, the Lehigh Acres Fire District now has a new plan.

In April, a brush fire came dangerously close to Sheena Villard and her family’s Lehigh Acres home.

“At the end of the day,” Villard said, “we all could’ve come home to absolutely nothing.”

“It was terrifying,” said Cyania Telus, a Lehigh Acres resident, “because I thought it was going to come closer as it got bigger.”

The fire only caused a power outage.

Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District said to continue operating as is, it needs a 5.79% rate hike. The chief says they need to buy new equipment to keep up with the demands. Lehigh Acres is also the only fire department in the whole county that doesn’t have a separate ad valorem tax, which would cost homeowners even more.

But the chief says their highest priority is to build a new fire station. They’ve already acquired the property, but it needs money to build and staff the station.

They would need roughly $6.5 million to build and equip the new station and additional $1.8 million per year to staff it.

Villard told WINK News they need the new station since everything is far in Lehigh Acres.

To put that in perspective, Lehigh Acres services 120,000 people in 142 square miles. However, there are only five fire stations.

While in Bonita Springs Fire District, there are roughly 51,000 people within 72 sq miles. Bonita Springs has seven fire stations.

The North Collier Fire District helps 150,000 people within 265 sq miles and has 10 fire stations.

In June, the Lehigh Acres Fire District was hoping to do a base fee of up to $165 per year, plus an additional charge based on the value of improvements to the property. Having a “maximum” cap of $165 allows them the flexibility to lower the base fee once they get the funds they need to catch up.

Robert Dilallo, the Lehigh Acres Fire District chief, said this would have been a decrease for most homeowners. However, since that measure failed in the special election, the assessment rates will be going up for everyone.

Starting Oct. 1, the new rates will go into effect. Vacant lot owners were paying around $22 this past year, but it will go up to $25. Homeowners will see their $317 fee increase to $335.

The Lehigh Acres Fire Board voted Monday to bump up rates by nearly 6%, which is the max before it has to bring it back to a vote. Dilallo also tells us, going back to the voters next year is still not entirely off the table.

For Villard, she wants more peace of mind before the next big fire threatens her home.

“It only takes not even a couple of minutes for everything to be gone,” Villard said. “So between those couple of minutes, if they get here in a timely manner because they’re close, why not?”

Reporter:Dannielle Garcia
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