MADEIRA BEACH — If the nearly 100 people who crowded the City Commission chambers Tuesday are any indication, any thought of eliminating the city's Fire Department is the proverbial third rail of Madeira Beach politics.
For nearly two hours, the commission listened as countless residents castigated them and City Manager W.D. Higginbotham Jr. for even considering to allow Seminole or any other city to take over the city's fire service.
"We have a great city. Every morning, these people (firefighters) put their uniforms on, they could die and you want to kick them to the curb?" asked Joe Ignoffo, one of many irate residents who rose to protest closing the Fire Department.
Ignoffo and other residents were reacting to news that the city had received a proposal from Seminole to take over providing city fire service and is seeking similar proposals from Treasure Island, the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District in Indian Rocks Beach, and possibly St. Petersburg.
Mayor Pat Shontz said "awful rumors" were circulating throughout the city about the future of the Fire Department.
Even though Higginbotham repeatedly explained that he was not recommending any change to how fire services are provided in the city, he said is obligated to present the commission with a balanced budget in July.
Because of a 15.7 percent decrease in property values, the city property tax revenues will decline by at least $500,000.
"We have a $700,000 shortfall in our budget between revenues coming in and spending requests. I am looking at everything," Higginbotham said.
Without significant cuts in spending, it would take a 42 percent increase in city property taxes — raising the present 1.7954 millage rate to 2.5548 mills — to balance next year's budget, he said.
Higginbotham has ordered a hiring freeze and asked existing employees to take up the slack.
"Even the fire chief is going out on fire runs," Higginbotham said.
He said a property tax increase would be "the very last thing" he would recommend to the commission.
If he does recommend shifting operations of the Fire Department to another city, the city will make sure its firefighters do not "suffer."
Higginbotham stressed the commission will make the final decision if he recommends changes in the fire service.
That, however, did not satisfy the Fire Department supporters in the audience.
"I am confused about why we are considering giving up what is probably the best fire and emergency service in the area," said resident June Mohns, which elicited quick applause from the audience.
Mohns then told the commission how the quick responses from the Fire Department had saved the lives of her niece and her father.
"I will never complain about taxes for fire services because I see what we are getting," she said. "The fire service is a core city function."
"It sounds like Seminole wants us, but I don't think we need them," said resident Steve Rayow, adding that he "wouldn't be too upset" if the city raised property taxes to pay for continued city-run fire service.
At the end of the discussion, Vice Mayor Steve Kochick told residents to "stop listening to these stupid rumors from stupid people."