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Where are business owners on tax-fee plan for fire service?

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002

Where is the next Carl Littlefield?

Older brother and legislative successor Ken Littlefield doesn't count.

Carl Littlefield is deputy secretary in the Department of Children and Family Services overseeing programs for the developmentally disabled. For a short time earlier, he was deputy secretary for the state Department of Elder Affairs. State legislator, Dade City commissioner and president of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce are other lines on the resume.

But Littlefield's trek into public service started with a Pasco County proposal in the late 1980s to assess an annual fee to pay for its trash incinerator. Littlefield, owner of a Dade City furniture store, led the business charge against it.

Expensive and unfair. The county listened and recalculated. The episode became Littlefield's springboard to elected office.

So we keep waiting for someone else to seize the political opportunity available on a similar issue: a combination tax and fee plan for fire service that, in its current form, heaps substantially higher costs on some businesses.

Almost paradoxically, the leading advocate for business on this issue is Commissioner Pat Mulieri -- whose environmental and anti-development positions usually put her at odds with commercial interests.

Otherwise, it's been relatively mum. The governmental affairs committee of the county's largest chamber isn't familiar with the plan. The Pasco Economic Development Council, which receives a substantial portion of its funding from the county, has some concerns but hasn't staked out an official position, either.

We suspect the business community should. While support for the plan dwindled last week, it doesn't mean a compromise position won't get pushed through Tuesday when the County Commission again considers charging an across-the-board fee, plus a reduced property tax to finance its fire service.

As detailed here previously, owners of large agricultural holdings and more affluent homes get a break while owners of lower-end houses pay more. Commissioner Ted Schrader champions the plan and likes to point out that a $40 residential fee equates to an average monthly cable television bill. People will pay it, he suggested.

Our suggestion? They must watch a lot of TV over at the Pasco Beverage Co.

That company's fire tax service tab would be more than $146,000 annually under this fee plan, but be less $20,000 if the county assessed a straight property tax.

The higher costs are attributable to the formula that assesses, by the square foot, each commercial building, but caps the total square footage for large buildings. As a result, one big structure would be assessed at a lower rate than several smaller buildings on the same piece of property.

"That is not equitable and that is not fair," said Joe Alpine of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce.

It's also not logical for a county that continually talks of growing its industrial tax base. Stanley said she knows of one current Pasco industry which wants to expand, but now doesn't know whether to build a separate building, or just an annex to its current structure in order to avoid the exorbitant fire fee.

The commercial formula hits more than businesses. The Carlton Arms apartment complex in Magnolia Valley would pay $16,000 if the county assessed a fire property tax exclusively. Adding the fee and cutting the millage brings the tab to more than $25,000. The scenario is repeated around the county at mobile home parks and other multifamily buildings. Figure the higher costs to be passed through to tenants in the form of higher rents.

If you're keeping a tally, that means the county has retained a consultant to devise a fire fee plan that sticks it to businesses, renters and owners of the county's most modest homes.

That's a lot of pain just to benefit a special interest -- agricultural land owners who already receive a generous property tax break through Florida's greenbelt exemption.

Just as painful was Schrader's idea of public debate. He pushed for adoption of the fire fee with the details and dollar amounts to come later.

"I don't even know," he said amid the commission dialogue last week, "why we're having this lengthy discussion."

Easy. It's called democracy.

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