Officials with Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue say the district’s fire stations are outdated and in need of major repairs. To illustrate the point, the district compared its Station 28 on the mainland in unincorporated Seminole at left with St. Petersburg’s Station 7 at right. “The stations are in horrible condition,” Commissioner Joe Bruno said. “They are the worst in Pinellas County that I have seen.”

BELLEAIR BEACH — Aging, inadequate fire stations and budget issues prompted Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District commissioners to take the initial steps to ask their constituents to approve a ballot measure calling for a new property tax of 0.67 mills.

The board voted to 4-1 on June 21 to have the ballot language prepared. The language would be presented to commissioners in July at which time they are expected to vote for or against putting the taxation issue on the ballot in the November election.

The majority of residential homeowners in the district pay a flat rate of $360 a year in assessments for the district's services. The district also gets EMS funding.

During the 90-minute discussion, Finance Director Erin Brooks gave a presentation, using charts, on the fiscal status of the district, saying officials looked aggressively at where they could cut expenses "down to the penny," she said. 

"Looking forward in time, you can see with our revenue stream the non-ad valorem assessments by nature do not grow. They're flat," she said. "Our expenses with inflation will grow," Brooks said.

Consequently, the district's fund balance under the current status is expected to become negative by fiscal year 2025, she said 

A 'giant tin can'

The district has three fire stations, two on the beaches and one on the mainland. Two of the fire stations are more than 50 years old, said Chief Jeffrey Davidson, with no money available to replace them.

An emergency operations center is needed, Davidson said, to oversee activities throughout a large-scale emergency, he said, such as a hurricane.

"And we need to look at locating our stations in the best locations in our district," Davidson said.

Fire station 27 in Indian Rocks Beach was built in 1965 with additions made over time. The building, which serves as administrative headquarters for the district, has problems and it's not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

This station is in the downtown business district, which attracts a lot of tourists so it's dangerous for firefighters to have to back trucks into the building, Davidson said.

"They have to back into the station because it's a small piece of land. They can't drive through," he said. 

A drive-through facility is the best option for the minor station, he said.

Staff would like to move that station about a mile north to better serve Belleair Beach and Belleair Shore.

Station 28 in the Oakhurst area was built in 1973. Davidson called it a "giant tin can" that firefighters live in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 

"It's not a healthy facility. It's not proper facility," Davidson said.

Its location is where district officials would like to build an emergency operations center.

District officials came up with .67 mills, or 67 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value, as they looked at things they needed to survive — personnel, trucks and equipment, training and fire stations. Such a tax rate was the lowest number that would accomplish all those things, Davidson said.

"This is a solution that builds healthy fire stations in the best locations that best serve the residents of our district and these are 50-year buildings, 40-year buildings," he said. "It allows the district to be cost-efficient and fiscally responsible, improve efficiencies for the best response times and it sustains us as a district to serve our communities."

2 mayors on board

Chairman Joe Bruno was in favor of holding a referendum, saying "we keep kicking the can, keep putting the Band-Aid on" the financial woes. 

However, because of current inflation and fuel costs, he is concerned "the word ad valorem will scare voters enough that they will vote it down," Bruno said.

“And unfortunately, if this referendum would get voted down in November, this department would probably dissolve by 2024 or 2025,” Bruno said.

That's because it's district officials’ understanding that they might not be able to hold an election in 2023 under recent changes in state laws affecting special districts.

"So we couldn't do another referendum until 2024, which would be too late," Bruno said.

Commissioner David Gardella, who voted against the motion on the ballot language, call it "extremely aggressive."

"To do such a massive proposal, I don't think it's the right thing to do at this time," he said.

Commissioners Lawrence Schear, Betsey McKenna and Louis Snelling also voted for the motion.

"The constant source of funding is what we really need and have needed all these years," Schear said.

Belleair Beach Mayor Dave Gattis and Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Cookie Kennedy spoke in favor of the proposed tax.

"I really appreciate the plan that has been presented. As much as I hate to admit that we need a tax increase this is one I think that the district can't live without," Gattis said.

Kennedy said Davidson took officials over to Fire Station 26 in Indian Shores to examine the problems. 

"It's even goes past being embarrassing," she said. "People don't live like that, OK. I don't want people in our communities living like that, and I don't want our firemen and firewomen living like that."

Since she has been elected the fire department has experienced problems financially, and she agreed that officials are always putting a Band-Aid on the problem. She invited Davidson to come to a meeting in Indian Rocks Beach at which citizens can ask question about the proposed tax.

Kelly Cisarik, who sat on the fire districts citizen's task force four years ago, said the $100 increase in assessments approved in a 2019 referendum was seen as a Band-Aid solution and the task force agreed that the combination of the new ad valorem tax with the existing assessment was the preferred long-term method of taxation.

She believes with the additional revenue they would be able to storm-harden the fire stations.

"I continue to be concerned that we don't have an emergency operations center, and I would like to see that emergency operations center on the mainland," Cisarik said.

Restaurateur Matt Loder, who was also on the task force, praised the services of the district. He said though his business would pay more under the proposal, "we think its very much a value considering what you all do and what the fire department and the district does for our business and for the people we depend on."

Officials at the meeting emphasized the motion only authorizes staff to hire a professional to draft the ballot question. 

Davidson said the cost to prepare the ballot language would be about $20,000.