EAST LAKE — The East Lake Fire Commission selected a new member at its recent meeting and made plans to raise property taxes for the third year in a row.
The commission, a five-person body that oversees East Lake Fire Rescue and levies taxes, appointed Randy Burr to replace Florence Galloway. She resigned to move closer to family.
Burr's selection was no surprise. Despite 13 qualified candidates and a rating system designed to make the system fair, several East Lake residents, firefighters and even other candidates said there was no doubt Burr would be selected.
Burr is a manager at the Fireman's Fund Insurance Co., where he helps lead a catastrophic injury claims team.
Commissioners are elected officials and usually face a communitywide vote. In the case of a resignation, commissioners appoint the replacement. The position pays $500 per month.
Burr is expected to serve out the remainder of Galloway's term, until November 2014.
He will join other commissioners in making budget decisions and helping the department move on from recent turmoil over racial allegations.
Sharon Hurst, who narrowly lost to Commissioner David Root during the 2012 commission race and attends every commission meeting, was not one of the five candidates granted an interview.
She said she thinks her exclusion was because she is not buddies with the sitting commissioners and has criticized some of their decisions.
"It blows my mind that some of these men never attend a meeting, but they get an interview," she said. "If anyone was qualified to get it, I would have been."
One of the five granted an interview but not the job was Lauralee Westine, wife of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Commissioner Paul Ferreri, who voted for Burr, said he thinks Hurst and other candidates were treated as fairly as possible.
At their meeting last week, fire commissioners also voted to consider a property tax increase to address a projected budget shortfall of nearly half a million dollars next year.
The 40-person department operates on a roughly $4.2 million budget and has paid its bills the past four years by raising property taxes and draining reserves.
Reserve funding is not an option this year without getting into red flag territory, said fire Chief Tom Jamison, adding that if the commission approves this tax hike, another probably won't be needed for three years.
If the proposed tax increase is approved in September, an East Lake property owner with a home assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $200 next year. The same property owner paid $170 this year. That doesn't include property taxes paid to other taxing authorities.
Rising property values are also expected to bring more money into the department, Jamison said. But the rate increase is still needed to cover expenses, he said, with the department operating on the same budget as in 2005, despite a rise in fuel, health care and other costs.
As a part of the ongoing negotiations with the fire union, Jamison said he wants to increase health plan deductibles to decrease how much the department pays for employee health insurance — roughly $500,000 per year.
This year, Jamison added, the department needs to replace a staff vehicle and hire an administrator. Jamison also requested a pay hike for himself and his staff. He told commissioners he will provide data on what other fire chiefs earn regionally to show that his salary should be higher. He earns $92,000 per year.
"I will throw out some ideas and suggestions in terms of where I feel like (my salary) should be," Jamison said. "And where my staff compensation should be so my staff is paid competitively with their peers."
Residents praised and criticized the prospective tax increase, with some saying it's necessary and others blaming the department for not being more efficient. The latter group includes Roger Johnson, an East Lake resident who accused the department of "spending like crazy."
"Somehow, as a resident, I think you can live within your budget," he said.
Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-323-0353. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.