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Fire tax in flux on verge of vote

Commissioners meet Tuesday to decide whether to pursue a flat fee. Some support $40, some $20. Others say that's too much.

By SAUNDRA AMRHEIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 17, 2002

Ken Steinburg was just the kind of man the County Commission wanted to hear from.

"I'd like to hear people come up and tell me they don't want to pay (even $25 more) a year for their fire service," said Commissioner Peter Altman.

The commissioners were meeting to discuss a new way of charging for fire service. And they'll meet again Tuesday to decide whether they want to pursue a system that would hit all residents in the unincorporated areas with a flat fee.

Steinburg is someone who'll get hit the hardest with the change. But he wouldn't be able to make it to the meetings to talk about it because he and his wife work six, sometimes seven, days a week.

But if you stop by his tiny white concrete block house with pink tile roof off Jasmine Boulevard, he'll tell you what he thinks.

"I don't have the extra money. It's hard making it as it is," said Steinburg, who runs a construction cleaning service with his wife, barely making ends meet. One work truck has 231,000 miles; the other has more than 100,000.

Pay is sporadic, based on the number of jobs they can get cleaning houses when developers are done before home buyers move in. Sometimes months pass between checks. They can't afford health insurance for his wife, Jean, who is losing sight in one eye. Any spare cash often goes to help his stepdaughter, who collects Social Security for an illness.

"I'm paying insurance on the vehicles and mortgage on the house plus electric and all that stuff," Steinburg said. Their work "pays the bills. For small-business people, it's rough."

The County Commission is scheduled Tuesday to consider a hybrid plan to change the way the county charges for fire service during a 9:30 a.m. meeting at the Pasco County Historic Courthouse in Dade City. It's supposed to drive up charges most dramatically for people in low-valued homes.

But the change might not end up being as bad as advertised for those residents. Several commissioners on the verge of the vote say they are leaning toward a less dramatic change in the fire tax system. It won't be final until budget hearings this fall.

One commissioner says she doesn't want to change anything; three say they want a smaller change than earlier discussed. One firmly supports the advertised plan.

What's certain is that the county, with or without the hybrid system, is planning to increase the property tax for fire service across the board to pay for new fire stations and equipment when it absorbs volunteer districts into the countywide fire service.

The question remains about how to pass on those increased costs -- either strictly through property taxes, which would hit high-valued homes hardest, or through the hybrid system, which would hit low-valued homes hardest.

The advertised hybrid plan does this: splits the fire costs between a property tax and a flat $40 fee. The reason low-valued homes are hit harder with a flat fee is because their owners pay so little in property taxes.

Properties with a taxable value less than $40,000 would see an increase over what they would have paid under a straight property tax. Everyone else would get a break.

In analyzing property records, homes with values under $40,000 tend to be clustered in the western part of the county, hugging U.S. 19 in older neighborhoods. Shady Hills and points southwest of Zephyrhills also hold a large number of low-value homes.

Not surprisingly, the homes getting the biggest break are in high-growth areas in the central and eastern part of the county as well as Trinity.

Commissioner Ted Schrader, the strongest advocate for the even split between a property tax and a $40 flat fee, has a smattering of both high-value and low-value homes in his district in the eastern part of the county.

Costs are going up, and it's only fair, he says, to spread the costs to all residents instead of dumping the biggest burden on the high-value property owners.

"All we're asking for is those residents that have paid little or nothing toward fire service to pay something," Schrader said.

The $40 is about as much as an average cable television charge, he argued, while fire service is worth so much more.

"That's a choice they are going to have to make," Schrader said. "Somebody in an expensive home is paying more than someone in a less expensive home for basically the same service."

That's historically the case with all county public services, says Commissioner Pat Mulieri, who wants to leave the system alone.

She opposes a change right now because not enough information has surfaced about how commercial property would be affected. Also, she would rather push for a fire impact fee to pay for needed fire equipment and stations.

Commissioner Peter Altman, who said at a public meeting that he wanted to hear from residents who couldn't afford even a $25 annual fire fee increase, said he understands some residents live paycheck to paycheck.

He supports a less severe split in charges, one that relies 75 percent on property tax charges and 25 percent on a fee, which would cut the flat charge in half to $20. He'll do that only if the other commissioners agree to shift the overall property tax increase to areas receiving new fire stations, like Land O'Lakes.

Commissioner Steve Simon said he might support the $20 fee but is leaning against even that.

"I think the overriding issue is fairness," Simon said. "It's a burden on the bottom rung."

Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, who has high concentrations of both high-value and low-value property in her district in southwest Pasco County, said she's leaning toward supporting the lower split, or the $20 flat fee.

The burden is relative, she said. Some living in a low-dollar home could actually be wealthy.

"Others who have a big house could be eating beans and macaroni to pay the bills," she said.

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