Legislators asked to help settle fire funding dispute

Four beach communities push to stop the Fire and Rescue District's bid to hike fees without voter okay.

Published October 26, 2005

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - Pinellas County legislators will be asked Thursday to step into the funding spat between the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District and four beach communities it serves.

At issue is how fire service fees should be set - by the voters, as is required now, or unilaterally by the fire district board.

The fire district, which has secured voter approval for increased fees only once since the early 1990s, wants the freedom to raise fees without a voter referendum.

The governments of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Indian Shores are "adamantly opposed" and want voters to continue to have the final say on fire fees.

"The district is now seeking legislation to bypass the voters and enact a charter change to open the door to tax increases and schemes that do not recognize the diversity of the district and the limited need for additional revenues in a district that enjoys a stable population and development density," states a position paper submitted to the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation by the beach communities.

Any charter change must be approved by the full state Legislature. Such approval is unlikely without the support of the local legislative delegation.

What the fire district wants is to change a charter section now requiring voter referendum approval for any rate increases to a single sentence that would allow the district board to set and change fire service rates with a simple commission vote. That new charter language would read:

"Upon compliance with all applicable provisions of ss. 197.3631 or 197.3632, Florida Statutes, the district shall be authorized to levy non ad-valorem assessments against all assessable real property located within the district."

The fire district proposal will be made by an attorney who represents all independent fire districts in Florida. District Fire Chief John Leahy, most fire district board members, as well as uniformed fire personnel are planning to attend.

They will face strong opposition from local town officials. Mayors John Robertson of Belleair Shore, Rudy Davis of Belleair Beach and Bill Ockunzzi of Indian Rocks Beach, as well as Indian Shores Commissioner Bill Smith and possibly other officials and residents plan to argue against the charter change.

Ockunzzi says the cities are "not opposed to a reasonable inflation-adjusted increase" in fees, but insists that the district should first provide its citizens "verifiable" justification and evidence to warrant such increases.

The two-page position paper outlines a contentious history between the district and its member cities that has embroiled the county as well. A consultant hired by a special joint oversight committee is now investigating the district's finances and operating policies.

The cities want the district - and the delegation - to hold off making any changes to its financing mechanism until after the consultant's report is completed. That is expected by the end of the year.

Chief Leahy calls the cities' opposition "a scam" to avoid paying their fair share of the costs of fire protection.

The four beach cities represent about half the fire district's territory, which also includes a large unincorporated area on the mainland between Walsingham Road and 102nd Avenue N.

In 2003, voters in the entire district approved increasing fire fees to a flat $190 per home. But the following year, they sharply rejected a switch to a fee based on the size of homes - that if passed would have effectively more than doubled fire service rates for larger homes.

Earlier, the district abandoned a proposal to switch to property taxes when it was sharply opposed by beach community mayors.

"We are the only independent fire district in the county that does not levy property taxes," Leahy continued to argue Monday. "All city fire departments are also financed by ad valorem taxes."

Meanwhile, the district says it will run out of money and possibly be forced to shut down in the next couple of years if it does not increase its fees.

If the legislative delegation refuses to back the proposed charter change, the fire district may once again approach voters next year to ask them to pay more for fire services.