County will support special fire district focused on retirees

Ava Sapp, a first-grader at The Villages Charter Elementary School Primary Center, sprays a fire hose with help from firefighter-EMT Josh Hayes of The Villages Public Safety Department during Fire Prevention Week. Sumter County commissioners on Tuesday voted to back VPSD’s efforts to create a fire district independent of county control.

Sumter County commissioners are on board with The Villages Public Safety Department’s efforts to create a fire district independent of county control.

The commission voted Tuesday to back the move that also has been endorsed by The Villages Homeowners Advocates, the Village Center Community Development District supervisors and state lawmakers who represent The Villages.

“You may ask what’s so special about a special independent district and why is it so important to The Villages,” Marilyn Iskra, of the Village of Osceola Hills at Soaring Eagle, told commissioners. “It’s special, because the population of The Villages is special. The special district that is independent from Sumter County will be closer to the population it serves. It will better understand The Villages unique demographics and special needs.”

A fire control district that is independent of county control would allow The Villages to tailor its resources to the needs of retirees in 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 a few areas outside the community that also are 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.

“I think I can speak for residents, not only in Sumter, but also Lake and Marion because there is an overflow group from those areas that want to see this happen,” Don Brozick, of the Village of Pine Hills, told commissioners. “I urge you to vote in favor of an independent district to make that happen.”

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.

“Villages residents are entitled to see all of the funding they pay toward fire and EMS services, go 100% to The Villages Public Safety,” Sheldon Levi, of the Village of DeSoto, told commissioners. “Once this has been completed, we will see The Villages Public Safety grow as The Villages grows to provide excellent services to all Villagers.”

The district would be governed by an elected board.

While both VPSD and Sumter Country Fire and Rescue cooperate on calls, VPSD already primarily serves The Villages and offers extra 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 also changes smoke detector batteries for free to help prevent falls.

VPSD had a 2020 average response time of 6 minutes and 19 seconds, while Sumter County Fire and Rescue’s average response time was 8:24, according to county data.

Special districts for fire control are common, with 53 such independent districts throughout Florida.

For instance, visitors to Walt Disney World will spy four fire stations, including ambulances, along the routes to the theme parks.

Known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District, this special taxing district was set up to include a fire department back in 1968, with basic ambulance service added in 1971 and upgraded to advanced life support in 1976.

That district allows for the fire and EMS department to serve the unique needs of the theme park and hospitality mecca, as well as cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista.

In addition to supporting the independent district, the commission’s 4-1 vote also approved three more action items related to fire service in The Villages:

The commission waived the dispute resolution process with the Village Center Community Development District. The county had threatened to cut off funding to VPSD after claiming the District owed about $2.7 million under terms of a 2019 agreement — a claim VCCDD denied. Instead, VPSD will eke the funds and apply them toward future fire stations and equipment needed to begin ambulance transports in October 2022.

The commission approved a new service area map for VPSD and Sumter County Fire and Rescue that includes swapping  two fire stations. VPSD Station 41 on County Road 466 will be transferred from the county to VCCDD. VPSD will no longer use the county’s Station 46 on CR 521 near Coleman.

The commission voted to terminate the fire sub-agreement between the county and VCCDD effective Oct. 1, 2022. A new agreement to bridge time between that date and the start of a new independent district will need to be developed alongside plans for the fire departments to add ambulance service.

Commission Chairman Garry Breeden was the only no vote, saying, “To simply waive the dispute resolution, I think is a lack of responsibility on our part.”

Commissioner Doug Gilpin, the first board member to publicly support the VPSD move weeks ago, had a different view.

“To me it’s a bigger picture issue,” he said. “We’re talking about tax dollars overwhelmingly coming from Villages residents. It’s not like we’re taking tax dollars and wasting them. It’s going to be going to equipment for an independent fire district. This is a very big thing. We’re not talking about just some administrative issues. We’re talking about shaping the history of Sumter County. With that in mind, I think we have to say, ‘let’s reset and let’s work in the spirit of cooperation like we always have.’ I’m afraid if we go through any kind of legal process, we’re certainly going to lose some of that and the people who are going to suffer are going to be Sumter County citizens.”

VPSD Fire Chief Edmund Cain said the county support “helps open the door to the process.”

The special fire district must be approved by voters, which could make the ballot as early as November 2022. Cain has said he hoped to have next steps on adding ambulance service by the end of the year.

“An independent special fire control district places the residents of The Villages in control of their fire and rescue services,” Cain said. “Funding sources are transparent and solely utilized for fire and rescue services. The design of an independent district allows for services to keep pace with the population it serves.”

In other commission business, following two public hearings, two changes were made to animal services operations to reduce overcrowding at the county animal shelter.

The median stay for animals in the shelter has risen from just over three days in September 2019 to nearly 13 days in August 2021

Now, adoption holds on stray dogs with no tag or identification will be reduced from five days to three as recommended by the Best Practices Playbook for Animal Services. There will be no stray holds for puppies and kittens under five months old or for healthy cats over five months.

The county also will establish a program to spay/neuter, vaccinate and return to the field for cats arriving at the county shelter as is done for feral cats. Cats in good health will be sterilized, microchipped, ear tipped, vaccinated and returned to the original area of pick-up.

Both motions carried 3-2 with commissioners Gilpin and Oren Miller opposed.

Managing Editor Curt Hills contributed to this report.