Proposed fire service fee takes from the poor
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002
Pasco County wants to take from the poor and give to the rich.
It is the bottom line result from a proposal to change the way the county finances its fire department. Under the scheme, to be considered by commissioners Feb. 5, the county will charge a new fire service fee to every homeowner and still assess a separate property tax within its growing fire district.
The size of the fee and tax rate are subject to change until next year's budget is finalized in late September, but the working numbers call for a $40-per-home fee and a tax rate of 1.93 mills. Each revenue source is intended to finance 50 percent of the firefighting operations.
The misguided motivation is to ensure every property owner contributes regardless of the assessed value of their home. What it really means is a sizable tax break for the owners of more expensive property.
Here are two examples:
The owner of a $225,000 home would pay $386.46 if the county financed its fire operations exclusively through property taxes. Assessing an across-the-board fee drops that owner's total bill by more than one-third to $250.16.
Yet, the owner of a $55,000 home -- like many of the the 1970s homes in west Pasco's older neighborhoods -- would pay $57.97 in taxes, but 23 percent more, $71.52, when the taxes and fee are combined.
As proposed, fire service tabs will go up for the owners of all homes appraised at approximately $70,000 or less. The average assessed value of a single-family residence (including mobile homes) is just under $65,000, according to the Pasco Property Appraiser's Office.
And, most notably, the 5,649 homeowners who pay no property taxes because of the $25,000 homestead and other exemptions, also will be expected to pay the $40 fee.
What all this means is the people who can least afford it -- senior citizens, working poor, and other owners of inexpensive housing -- get stuck while everyone else from large landowners to middle-class suburbanites catches a break.
Commissioner Ted Schrader, whose family has sizable land holdings in Pasco County, advocates the mix of fees and taxes, in part, to reduce the burden on ranchers and other large property owners. We disagree. Florida law already accounts for the cost of maintaining such holdings via its greenbelt exemptions. Native pasture land, for instance, is appraised at just $150 per acre. They don't need another tax break at the expense of the poor.
The fire department finances are being changed in anticipation of expanding service to new areas. The county is assuming responsibility for the geographic regions covered by San Antonio, Moon Lake and Land O'Lakes volunteers and may do likewise for the Magnolia Valley department in west Pasco and two smaller outfits in the northeast corner of the county.
To pay for a pair of new stations, upgrades to existing fire houses, six new trucks in the first year and the bunker gear for new firefighters, the county expects to increase its fire tax rate of 1.54 mills to 1.93 mills beginning Oct. 1. It is anticipated the rate will be reduced in three years closer to its current level after $6.5-million in capital spending is completed.
The issue to be decided early next month is whether the financing formula should include the proposed fee. There is no question local governments have limited means. They don't levy an income tax and get only a portion of the sales tax and other state taxes. And property taxes -- in this instance a separate municipal service tax for fire protection -- frequently carry a political stigma, particularly in an election year.
But the answer isn't a fee that disproportionately burdens the poor. The property tax is still one of the few revenue sources to have the progressive feature of asking people of greater means to contribute more to the cost of their government. That's a better measure of tax fairness than asking everyone, regardless of means, to pay.
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