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Fire chiefs brace for property tax cuts

Tax relief could affect service areas and response times in the county and the state.

Published May 27, 2007

Seminole firefighter-EMT Tyanne Hutchinson responds to a call. If the state House cuts taxes 25 percent, "that's ugly. It's over a quarter of my budget," Seminole Chief Dan Graves said.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
[Times photo: John Pednygraft]
Firefighter Paramedics Leon Hammond (right) and Derek Raymer (left) help Karon Lantz into an ambulance after a motorcycle accident in Seminole.

A severe cutback in property taxes would devastate fire and emergency service across the county, Pinellas fire chiefs say.

Though officials think that much of the rhetoric amounts to scare tactics, they are aware of the potential effect of property tax cuts on services funded solely by ad valorem taxes.

"I think they're having knee-jerk reactions," said state Rep. Janet Long, D-Seminole.

"I think that this is a question of values and that this is a question of priorities and that the cities and the county are going to use that to whip up debate."

Although Long promised that public safety and education issues would be funded first, she conceded at a forum in St. Petersburg on Wednesday that you don't cut billions from a budget without losing services or something else.

It's difficult to have any debate or quantify the impact because there are several plans on the table, but the picture is not pretty, Pinellas Park fire Chief Doug Lewis said.

"We're large enough, I think, (to) weather the storm, but for smaller departments ... it could be devastating," Lewis said. "It's not a pleasant subject to talk about."

The potential problem lies in the way Pinellas fire and emergency service are delivered.

Cities pay for their own fire departments that serve their residents. The money comes out of the general fund budget, which is built from property taxes and other sources, like franchise fees. If property taxes are cut, the city can use other money for fire service.

But in some instances unincorporated areas contract with cities to provide fire service. That money can only come from property taxes, as dictated by a state law passed in 1973. If property taxes are slashed, there is nowhere else to get the money and the fire budget will decrease.

Pinellas Park serves some pockets of unincorporated Pinellas and part of the unincorporated High Point area. The county money for those areas accounts for about 20 percent of the department's $10.5-million budget, and a decrease would hurt, Lewis said.

Lewis said he's expecting to lose firefighters, but the impact remains to be seen.

If the worst-case scenario happened and Pinellas Park had to close its High Point station, the only one in the unincorporated area, the city has four other stations to take up the slack. Service would be stretched, but the effect would not be devastating.

Other departments, like Seminole, are in a much worse position. Three of the Seminole department's four stations are in the unincorporated area. And the county money accounts for about 75.3 percent of the Seminole department's $9.7-million fire and EMS budget.

If the property tax reduction is small, the department could survive, said Seminole Chief Dan Graves. Some positions would be lost, but "we would just try to live with that and move on."

If the state House of Representatives has its way and whacks 25 percent off taxes, Graves said, "that's ugly. That equates to 24 fire/medic positions. It's just incredible. It's over a quarter of my budget."

In the end, Graves said, that would mean closing two county stations and putting a heavier burden on the others that remain open. In 2006, Seminole answered 10, 625 requests for emergency service.

That could mean Seminole firefighters would run calls into the county without any units from the unincorporated area there to reciprocate. Graves said he cannot see spending city money that way.

Cities like Seminole might decide not to run into the county, he said. Graves said he would hate to see that happen, but if the political powers decided not to spend city money that way, then "we, as soldiers, will go out and soldier as they tell us to."

At the very least, response times would be slower because there would be fewer emergency teams to answer calls.

Lt. Rick Feinberg, spokesman for the St. Petersburg Fire Department, said his department, like all others, would be affected. The department has two stations in the county and all EMS funding comes from property taxes that are then distributed by the county. The question is how big the hit.

County units might not be the only ones to disappear. The Lealman, Palm Harbor and East Lake Fire Rescue departments are independent districts funded by property taxes. If taxes go down, so does their funding.

"I can't give you hard numbers because I don't entirely understand the percentage plan yet," Palm Harbor fire Chief James Angle said.

Angle said station closings would affect other counties, too, and that would hurt the state's emergency response system.

Most recently, the state used the system to fight fires in Lake City. Within six hours, the area had 37 units with 148 firefighters. If just one station is closed in each county, he said, it would hurt the ability to provide relief after hurricanes and during forest fires.

Angle said it's too early to panic. He and his fire commission have spoken frequently with members of the county's legislative delegation to explain the nature of special districts and of fire/EMS funding.

"They do seem to understand the situation with special districts," Angle said. "I really believe some of our local legislators are listening."

[Last modified May 26, 2007, 22:22:03]

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