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John Romano: Who pays for St. Petersburg fire fee could be up to you

They hate the idea of raising taxes around here.

Hate it so much, they've voted to do it twice in eight days.

Now that's not nearly as bad as it sounds. In fact, it's sort of a good thing.

Because what St. Petersburg City Council members have done is given themselves — and you — a choice in how tax revenue will be collected in the next year.

Either a fire readiness fee will be added to every parcel of property in the city, or the millage rate will be raised on your existing property taxes.

The council has signed off on both ideas, but will likely enforce only one by the time it gets around to finalizing the budget in September.

And this is where you come in.

Mayor Bill Foster has made it clear he favors the fire fee. And it seems like a slight majority of the council is leaning in that direction. But the mayor and some council members have also made it clear they are willing to be flexible in this matter.

And that means you get a chance to play lobbyist.

(Sort of like Rick Scott playing park ranger last week. Or governor the rest of the time.)

So what's the difference between the fire fee and the millage increase? For most folks, not much. The cost between the two options is probably a few bucks a month, in either direction, for the majority of homeowners.

It's the people at the bottom and the top of the food chain who have the greatest stake in this argument.

The fire fee includes a cap and would not hit wealthy landowners nearly as hard as the millage increase would. Conversely, the fire fee would put a greater burden on poorer homeowners, as well as nonprofits and churches.

"I've been a steady no on this. I haven't changed my mind,'' council member Steve Kornell said before voting on the fire fee July 12. "I feel that it's regressive. I feel that it harms poor people on the front end and then harms poor people again on the back end with the nonprofits and churches that are also trying to help poor people.''

The argument for the fire fee is it treats everyone equitably. Businesses that might get hit hard by a millage increase will not even notice the fire fee. And so, the theory goes, those businesses will have more money to hire people.

Which is a fine theory, as long as you believe those savings will be reinvested in employees as opposed to, say, a business owner's timeshare in Grand Cayman.

"For those in multimillion-dollar homes, or let's just say the DeBartolos, they are already paying huge sums of money through ad valorem,'' Foster said. "That's why I proposed a cap. It's equitable across the board.''

That's pretty much what the argument comes down to:

Do you favor giving a tax break to the corporate owners of Tyrone Square Mall and the city's wealthiest homeowners, or do you prefer the property tax system that is already in place?

You have a chance to affect the decision. Write your council members. Attend one of the public budget hearings on Sept. 13 or 27. Kornell, Wengay Newton and Charlie Gerdes voted against the fire fee. Karl Nurse and Bill Dudley seemed willing to go either way.

By approving both tax mechanisms this month, this council is giving the public an opportunity to impact the city's direction.

Speak up now, or shut up later.

John Romano: Who pays for St. Petersburg fire fee could be up to you 07/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2012 6:59pm]
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