SEBRING - There they grow again.
West Sebring Volunteer Fire Department, already Highlands County's largest, will now be allowed to assess Sun N' Lake properties for fire protection, and that added another 7,500 to what is now a 60,000-person district.
That's right, 60 percent of Highlands County's 100,000 population lives in one fire district, said Asst. Chief Billy Kingston. And WSVFD answers every call with volunteers.
"We have 41 active volunteers, and as of next meeting, we will have three folks in the process of applying," said Kingston, a volunteer for 15 years and assistant chief for six years.
The department covers only 24 square miles, which is just 2 percent of the county's 1,016.62 total.
"From the north side, it starts by Lake Glenada," Kingston said. "That's just south of the college. We pick up Highlands Lakes, and go down to Town and Country mobile home park, which is across from Highlands Regional Medical Center."
The district also includes Francis 1 and Francis 2 mobile home parks behind Burger King and McDonald's.
"We go down CR 635 to meet with DeSoto City VFD, and on the other side we have Country Club of Sebring and Highlands Hammock State Park," Kingston said. Other housing additions include Golf Hammock, Sebring Hills, Sebring Country Estates, Highlands Ridge, Harder Hall, Sebring Ridge and now Sun N' Lake.
"We started out bigger than that," Kingston said. "In the 1970s, there was no formal fire protection." But a death occurred during a house fire near where the original Longview Court station is located, and that sounded a clarion to start a volunteer fire department.
"The boundaries have changed a lot over time, and they continue to change on a frequent basis because of annexation," Kingston said. Most recently, Avon Park took in Crystal Lakes, which was in West Sebring VFD.
By contrast, Lorida VFD covers four times the land area, but only a few thousand people live around Lake Istokpoga, and the rest is mostly pasture.
Three volunteer fire departments, Highlands Lake, DeSoto City and Lake Placid, hire two firemen to cover Monday through Friday day shifts.
"We have budgeted two paid personnel, but we haven't seen the need to utilize them yet," said Kingston, who joined when he was 18. "We have a really good mix, that's what helps us from a recruiting standpoint, We have some really young people who are still in high school who want to do this, and it's a great place for them to start. We have folks who own their own business. And we have people who are retired." Each volunteer is certified to go into a fire's hot zone.
The high density population is a blessing, Kingston said, because fewer than one in a thousand wants to volunteer to leave their workplace or family, answer fire calls, and put their lives at risk night and day.
"In the area that we serve, the majority of Highlands County either lives here or goes into the area every day or every week or month," Kingston said.
The incorporation of Sun N' Lake gives WSVFD an annual budget of $450,000, which is bigger than the combined budgets of the next two largest (Highlands Lakes and Lake Placid) or the five smallest fire departments (Highlands Parks, Placid Lakes, Venus, Lorida and Leisure Lakes).
The purpose of Tuesday's meeting was "not to set an assessment, but have the board, by resolution, to collect a non-ad valorem assessment using the ad valorem method," County Attorney Ross Macbeth said.
Sun N' Lake resident Rex Bond asked if commissioners were using the correct method to tax Sun N' Lake citizens.
Bond quoted Florida law, which said the citizens should vote on the tax. "Because it's going to affect their taxes. Are we doing it the right way? If not, let's take our time and eliminate bad feelings and lawsuits."
"There is no need to go to the voters," Macbeth answered. The county commissioners are not contracting to provide fire service; the commission is changing the boundaries. "That action does not require going to the voters."