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East Lake requests boost in fire funds

The East Lake Fire Control District needs about a 43 percent budget increase next year to hire nine new firefighters, provide raises for present firefighters and keep a third fire station open, according to a proposed budget turned in to the county.

The district's $2.18-million budget for 1998-99 would be an increase of $652,025 over this year's budget if approved by the County Commission this summer.

Most of that increase would pay for nine new employees if the district is allowed to keep Station 57 on Tarpon Lake Boulevard open.

East Lake also operates Station 58 on Keystone Road and is building Station 56 at East Lake Road and Woodlands Boulevard.

Early plans called for the fire and rescue crew at Station 57 to move into the new station when completed, leaving Station 57 to be used only for administrative offices.

But people living near Station 57 have lobbied the fire district and the county to keep a 24-hour crew there, a move that would require a tax increase.

The Citizens Action League, which generally has opposed tax increases, has gathered about 1,300 signatures in favor of keeping the station open, group president Chuck Schult said.

County officials have insisted that East Lake's firefighters do not handle enough calls to warrant having three full-time stations. But the fire district, in response to residents' demands, is pushing to keep all three stations.

"All the feedback I've received has been positive for it," said fire Commissioner Jim Nobles, who with the rest of the board supports the proposed budget.

Fire district officials do not know how much taxes would have to rise to support the nine new firefighters _ three for each 24-hour shift _ and keep the extra station open. The county property appraiser does not calculate property values in East Lake until August.

But district officials have estimated in the past that if property values stay the same in East Lake, the current tax rate of $1.21 per $1,000 of taxable property value would rise to $1.58, a 31 percent increase.

However, property values in East Lake have consistently risen in recent years, 4.1 percent most recently.

The new budget also would pay for raises for current employees. The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1158 negotiated an 8 percent average increase in the salaries of East Lake firefighters to bring them a little closer to the county average, said union vice president Dave Taylor.

Firefighters who have not reached the top of their pay scale will receive 4 percent raises for the following two years, said Taylor, an emergency medical technician with the East Lake Fire Control District.

The union had asked for a 12 percent pay increase but was denied. The district did agree to a 12 percent increase in the department's starting salary, putting it on a par with the nearby Palm Harbor Fire Control District.

Taylor said firefighters accepted lower raises to help the department pay for the nine new employees needed at Station 57.

"We've taken a lot of concessions in order to help the department cost effectively add the new people," he said. "We've given up some of our money to give to the new guys."

But the county is also considering a second, less expensive option for serving East Lake residents. Sunstar has proposed dedicating an ambulance to the East Lake fire district by stationing it at Station 57 or at a nearby shopping center on East Lake Road.

That ambulance would not leave East Lake unless it was needed to transport someone to a hospital, at which time another ambulance would take its place. This would provide 24-hour emergency medical service to East Lake without the cost of adding a third station, said Guy Daines, director of EMS and fire administration for the county.

Only those who use the ambulance would pay for the service.

Some residents and fire district officials have pointed out that although the ambulances have the same medical supplies as the firetrucks, they lack special equipment such as fire hoses and extrication tools.

"That's not really a one-for-one substitute," said fire Commissioner Wayne Ferguson.

But Ridgemoor resident Don Flynn said he would like to try the less expensive option first. Flynn represented East Lake 2000 at a meeting with county and district officials April 17. The organization has not taken a position yet.

"There's a half-million (dollar) swing," Flynn said. "That's an easy decision as far as I'm concerned. I think we ought to try the most reasonable situation first."

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