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Commissioner balks at tax hike for fire service in unincorporated Dunedin

County commissioners barely managed Thursday to get the unanimous vote needed to tentatively raise one property tax rate about 57 percent to continue providing fire service in the unincorporated Dunedin area.

The increase passed at first reading, but several commissioners said they want to change the system and find someone who will charge less. The city of Dunedin currently provides fire protection to that unincorporated area.

Commissioners don't want to stop with Dunedin. They'd also like to see if they can get better deals for some of the other 11 fire districts they directly control.

"We really owe it to those residents to look and see what we can do better," Commissioner Nancy Bostock said Friday.

Dunedin fire Chief Bud Meyer said, "I'm not sure they can do that."

Legal and practical reasons could stand in the commission's way, he said. The unincorporated area that Dunedin covers isn't one clearly defined mass. It's spread out in smaller chunks throughout the city.

"I don't know how another fire engine could respond in the middle of my city … any cheaper than I can do it," Meyer said.

Fire protection in Pinellas County is provided by a patchwork of agencies: 18 cities that fund departments through local taxes; four so-called independent districts that set their own tax rates or fees for service; and 12 "dependent" fire districts. The dependent districts are areas of unincorporated Pinellas that county officials are responsible for. They contract with adjoining cities to provide coverage and pay a proportionate amount of the municipality's fire budget for the service.

Between state laws and contractual obligations, the county has little or no say over the amount it is charged. It simply has the obligation to pay the costs. That's become increasingly irksome for several commissioners who want more control over expenditures.

This year, for example, Bostock objected to the tax rate for the High Point area, which is served by both Largo and Pinellas Park. Property owners there pay about $4.19 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value for fire service alone. And while that rate should stay the same in the coming year, it's more than many city residents pay for a full range of services. Property owners in Seminole, for example, pay about $2.48 per $1,000.

Commissioner Norm Roche focused on Dunedin where the current tax rate is about $2.26 per $1,000. It will likely increase by about $1.29, or 57.4 percent, to $3.55 next year. Final approval is set for Sept. 18.

Meyer, the Dunedin chief, said the increase is a one-year expense as the county's contribution to a new fire station.

"We serve the unincorporated area from that station," Meyer said.

State law requires a unanimous vote for such large increases. But Roche at first voted against raising the rate. Roche wanted the county to handle the Dunedin situation the way it handled a similar situation for residents of the unincorporated area adjacent to South Pasadena.

Taxpayers in the unincorporated South Pasadena area are paying about $3.13 per $1,000 for fire service. But the county had opened the contract up for bids and, earlier on Thursday, had awarded it to St. Petersburg. That change, which is scheduled to happen Oct. 1, means those taxpayers will see a $2.22 reduction in their property tax rate for fire protection to about 0.91 per $1,000. That's about a 79 percent drop in the fire tax rate.

"We've had such a success with this one, let's try it elsewhere," Roche said.

Roche said Friday that he changed his vote because it was clear that no one knew how to handle the situation created by his "no" vote.

"Jaws dropped, they didn't know what to do," Roche said. "I'd put them in a bit of a kerfuffle."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Commissioner balks at tax hike for fire service in unincorporated Dunedin 09/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 8, 2012 4:31am]
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