Funding for a controversial fire station in Lehigh Acres won’t get state funding this year.
Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $1.25 million appropriation for the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue Service District. The local government intended to spend the money on a new facility, Fire Station 106.
The appropriation died as DeSantis vetoed a record $1.66 billion in spending amid revenue shortfall concerns connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the spending notably served as a political touchstone in House District 79.
Rep. Spencer Roach originally sought $5 million to help fund the station, $1 million for equipment and $4 million for new construction. He ultimately was able to secure only $1.25 million in the budget.
Fire Chief Robert DiLallo said, because of that, the district already had to delay construction of the station while it sought new funding sources for the remaining $3.75 million. With the state funding nixed, that sets funding back further.
“We have other options looking for funding, but haven’t secured those sources either, so we are still working on it,” he said. “We’ve been working on this for a couple years.”
Roach has sought the funding two Sessions in a row, and got it farther this year than last. “Maybe in my third Session I can get it across the finish line,” he said.
But from conversations with other lawmakers, Roach feels the cut wasn’t an attack on the merits of the project but a victim of the sudden austerity forced by the pandemic.
DiLallo said the funding was to provide of the final pieces for the project. The district already has land purchased and permitting ready.
Roach informed DiLallo this afternoon the money was vetoed.
But more than simply an infrastructure project, political debate erupted in recent years over the need for the station at all.
One of the most vocal opponents of the project, Randy Scott, filed for state House against Roach in the Republican primary this year.
He led a campaign against a proposed tax increase to provide funding for the station, which voters rejected June 4, 2019. A similar referendum appears on the ballot again on August 18, the same day Scott faces Roach in a Republican primary.
“I took personal offense Spencer would go to the statehouse to seek the money for the new fire station in spite of us voting it down,” Scott said. “The argument could be this is state money, but the cost of building a firehouse is 5M while an operational cost goes on forever, and it won’t be funded but for a fee increase.”
Scott for his part thinks DeSantis should have vetoed more spending, including raises for state employees. He did send the Governor a letter calling for the funding to be vetoed for the fire station. He figures, most likely, the Governor responded to the will of local voters.
“The Governor’s past vetoes have consistently been with the idea of local control, like with the straw ban Spencer supported last year. In this case it was also local control, let the people decide.”
Roach, for his part, has argued the district needs funding to ensure public safety in Lehigh Acres. His district remains the only House district in Florida with no municipal governments serving the people.
When Scott filed to challenge Roach, the incumbent dismissed it as a challenge on his record supporting public safety.
“Mr. Scott has been my most vocal and strident critic since I was elected two years ago,” Roach told Florida Politics. “His opposition to my efforts in support of our law local enforcement and firefighters is well documented.”
The Representative said he still feels certain the state funding was appropriate. Fire and safety infrastructure should be the first responsibly of government he said. He predicted the August vote on a fee in the fire district will be successful this year.
And while Lehigh Acres at this point has roughly the same population as the nearby city of Cape Coral, the municipality boasts 11 fire stations while Lehigh has just five, some of them not fully operational since Hurricane Irma struck.
“I don’t see why the people of Lehigh Acres and less deserving then the people of Cape Coral to have their property and more importantly their lives protected,” he said. “There are strong feelings but this was a more than appropriate use of state funds,.”