The plan to form an independent fire control and rescue district in The Villages is underway.

State lawmakers who represent The Villages, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Brett Hage, R-Oxford, both say they will support the action in the upcoming 2022 legislative session.

"I think we're on a real good track now," Baxley told the Sumter County Legislative Delegation on Wednesday.

A fire control district that is independent of county control would allow The Villages to tailor its resources to the unique needs of the community that stretches beyond Sumter County.

The new district's boundaries would include all of The Villages in Sumter, Lake and Marion counties, while continuing to cover areas outside the community but within The Villages Public Safety Department's service area.

Areas elsewhere in Sumter County would continue to be served by the county-run Sumter County Fire and Rescue.

The district would be able to raise its own funding and determine its own spending so Villages residents would know precisely where every penny was spent.

The district would be governed by an elected board.

While the two departments cooperate on calls, VPSD already primarily serves The Villages and offers services for senior citizens that the county-run agency does not.

For example, VPSD coordinates the Community Emergency Response Team, offers CPR classes and trains volunteers for the Neighbors Saving Neighbors program that has placed more AEDs per capita in this community than anywhere in America. VPSD staff will even change smoke detector batteries for free to help prevent falls.

VPSD reported a 2020 average response time of 6:19 compared to Sumter County Fire and Rescue's 8:24.

VPSD next year will receive $16 million from Sumter County, $1 million less than this year. Sumter County Fire and Rescue will receive $12 million, an increase of $700,000.

About 84% of Sumter County residents live in The Villages.

"We're very pleased," said VCCDD Manager Richard Baier after Wednesday's meeting. "This is a chance for people of The Villages to have the most control and focused governance. We believe the time is right to give them the choice of how they want this government structure set up."

Florida is already home to at least 53 independent special fire districts across the state - including the Reedy Creek Fire Department established in 1968 to serve the Disney World area .

The final step in such a move in The Villages is a public referendum that could be held next November, Baier said.

"The process would be "open, transparent and collaborative," he said. "We want to work with the county."

Also on Wednesday:

  • The delegation heard about staffing issues from Sumter County Schools Superintendent Rick Shirley. "It's been a tough year and a half," he said. "We're kind of struggling with personnel. We're not the only ones."
  • John Cooper, CEO of Kids Central, said his agency is experiencing the same issue. The child protection and foster care agency, whose service area includes Sumter County, asked for more funds to create a tiered salary structure.
  • Chantel Buck, president/CEO of New Vision for Independence, invited the legislators to celebrate White Cane Safety Day with the group on Oct. 15.
  • Jeannie Hamilton, co-chair of The Villages/Tri-County District of Floridians for the National Popular Vote, asked legislators to consider awarding electoral votes to the popular vote winner.
  • Mark Barry, CEO of the Arc Nature Coast, a social services organization in Shady Hills, said it will soon merge with another nonprofit in Bushnell in order for that nonprofit to survive the minimum wage increase. The rates for their services have to increase to survive long term, he said, and they need the support of the Legislature and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities to do so.
  • Kate Parker, a board member of Florida Death With Dignity, asked for support to allow Floridians with terminal illnesses medical aid to die.

Specialty Editor Keith Pearlman contributed to this report. Specialty Editor Leah Schwarting can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5375, or leah.schwarting@thevillagesmedia.com.