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There's confusion everywhere over fee to finance fire service

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002

Maybe you're confused.

Who's to say that I'm not, too?

One thing is for sure, confusion, and partner, misinformation, became buzz words in the county commission chambers this week replacing the much-sought-after consensus and clarity.

Commissioners' fingers pointed at print journalists, including yours truly, for what they think are imprecise impressions floating around the new financing plan for the county fire department.

Rebuke accepted.

Anytime government tries to give a tax break to the wealthy at the expense of the poor and average citizenry, we shouldn't mince words.

Here's the situation: more money is needed to build two new fire stations, upgrade other facilities, purchase trucks and equipment, and hire additional firefighters as the county takes over the regions formerly covered by volunteers in Land O'Lakes, Moon Lake and San Antonio. After the capital improvements are completed, county administrators say the tax rate should decline in three years.

Under the current plan, the county will charge every residential property owner, regardless of a home's taxable value, $40 annually to raise half the money needed for fire service. In addition, the county will charge a property tax of just less than 97 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value to raise the other 50 percent of the needed revenue. Without the fee, the projected tax rate doubles for the coming year to slightly more than $1.93 per $1,000. The current fire tax is $1.54 per $1,000.

Confused yet?

If you've concluded that, under this fee plan, owners of more affluent property catch a break, then your comprehension is right on target. The more expensive the home, the larger the savings. (To the commissioners' credit, they moved to exempt schools, churches and charities.)

Part of the confusion comes from a common misconception that so many people get a free ride on government services because their homes are assessed at less than the $25,000 homestead exemption.

In Pasco County, the owners of 5,649 single-family homes, including mobile homes, pay no property taxes because of the homestead and other exemptions. That is just 5 percent of the nearly 107,000 owner-occupied dwellings countywide. A consultant said the fee will be applicable to 178,000 parcels, which means more than 70,000 rental homes, businesses, industries, and agricultural land also will be assessed the fire tax and fee. That puts the percentage of non-contributors at just 3 percent.

So much for the far-flung network of freeloaders.

The leading proponent of the fire plan, Commissioner Ted Schrader, noted the commission adopted two impact fees over the past 12 months. The county trend, he said, is to move toward fee-based revenues.

We detect some confusion on his part.

The commission did approve impact fees to build schools and parks, but those assessments are one-time charges on new homes. They are intended to ensure new home buyers contribute toward the increased demand on services from a growing population. Contrarily, the fire fee hits every property owner with an annual charge for a service already provided to most of the county.

Commissioner Peter Altman is confused, too. He acknowledged it.

In June, he sought a countywide tax district for parks, in part, to raise money to outfit high-growth areas like Wesley Chapel that have little or no public recreational facilities.

The commission turned down his plan 3-2 with Schrader casting the deciding vote. Now, there's talk of pushing a tax district exclusively for Wesley Chapel in order to take care of its park needs.

So, how come, Altman wondered, the commission isn't starting a fire district or impact fee exclusively for Land O'Lakes and the other areas now outside the county's fire protection? After all, most of the capital improvement costs are linked directly to those new areas joining the county department.

It is a legitimate question. Nobody offered an answer. Maybe they were confused.

But, Altman isn't misunderstood at all on the possibility of his idea moving forward. No chance, he confessed.

Pat Mulieri, the biggest critic, probably is confused, too. Five days ago, only 11 people came to the commission's public hearing on the fire fee even though Mulieri requested additional advertisements aimed at filling the room. She opposes the fee. Good for her.

Yet, she has offered no other ideas. We trust she is looking for alternatives, not just a bigger audience to hear her objections.

The other dissenter, Commissioner Steve Simon, advocates lowering the fee to $20 per home and financing 75 percent of the fire department costs through property taxes. It's preferable to the current scheme, but financing the fire district with 100 percent property taxes is more equitable. The fee puts a disproportionate burden on the owners of the poorest homes.

Schrader told fellow commissioners they likely would be surprised when they heard comments from the public. People aren't opposed, he suggested, to a financing plan that relies on a fee assessed to everyone.

A few minutes later Gary Willner of Trinity approached the podium.

"I gain on this," said Willner, "but I don't necessarily think that's right."

You couldn't miss it.

Clear thinking, at last.

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