Group's survey shows St. Petersburg residents don't like fire fee, but don't want more service cuts

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster plans to present a revised fire fee to the City Council today as the group decides how to close a $10 million budget gap for next year.

The less expensive fee Foster is now proposing calls for property owners to pay $50 per parcel instead of $75 and $0.21 per $1,000 of its appraised structural value, down from $0.23 per $1,000.

Foster said he pegged the initial proposal with higher amounts in order to present a plan for a balanced budget in July. "I've always said it would be less," Foster said Wednesday.

Foster also said he will propose increasing the property tax rate of 5.9125 per $1,000 of taxable value to 6.0351 in order to generate the same revenue the city received in property taxes this year. Some homeowners will pay slightly higher property taxes. But those measures, Foster said, will generate nearly $9 million needed to close the budget gap.

The revision comes as the council must decide to either hike property taxes, raid the reserves or implement the fire fee to balance the budget by month's end. The council also could approve a combination of these measures.

Critics contend the fire fee is a regressive tax on the poor, and churches and charities have called on Foster to eliminate the fire fee.

"Trust me," Foster said. "This will not appease the critics."

The council, which voted 5-3 in July to move forward with a fire fee, is limited on how it can raise the $10 million, or roughly 2 percent of the city's proposed $472 million budget for next year.

Residents can share their opinions on the budget at 6 tonight at the first of two public hearings at City Hall.

A survey released Wednesday by the citizens group calling itself the People's Budget Review concluded that residents oppose the fire fee.

The group surveyed nearly 6,000 residents this summer and found that 52 percent oppose the fire fee.

However, an overwhelming majority — 77 percent — do want the city to raise revenue to avoid further cuts to pools, parks and libraries. The group said other results from the unscientific poll showed:

• Thirty-two percent favor the fire fee to raise the money; 47 percent favor higher property taxes; and 48 percent want the city to dip into its reserves of more than $40 million.

• Forty-four percent want the city to raise more than the $10 million so bigger budget issues don't arise next year.

• Twenty-two percent don't want additional revenues raised even if it means cutting more services.

The group polled residents from a voter file on the telephone and also accepted responses online. Some pollsters also knocked on doors, the group said.

One message emerged from the survey, said Darden Rice, president of the League of Women Voters of St. Petersburg and a member of the budget group.

"What is most notable from our perspective, is the fact that for the first time in 20 years residents are debating revenues instead of where to cut services," she said.

Foster lauded the budget group for polling residents and wasn't surprised that residents want to raise revenue to keep services flowing.

Even with the lack of support, Foster believes the fire fee is the most equitable method to balance the budget since all property owners, regardless of income, use city services.

"It comes down to a philosophical debate about should everybody pay something," he said.

The proposed fire fee has undergone changes recently.

In the initial proposal, Foster did not exempt nonprofit groups from the fee although they don't pay property taxes. He changed that two weeks ago.

Foster is still against exempting poor homeowners. He estimates that low-income property owners would pay a fire fee of about $52 a year.

While he doesn't want them picking between paying a fire fee or buying food or medication, Foster also doesn't think they should get free city services.

He pointed to the fire fee deferral, which would save homeowners from paying right now but would place a lien on the property that could be collected when the home is sold.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

>> Fast facts

Be heard

The St. Petersburg City Council meeting begins at 3 p.m. today at City Hall, 175 Fifth St. N. A formal budget hearing will start at 6 p.m. Residents will be allowed to speak to the council during the budget hearing. The next budget hearing is at 6 p.m. Sept. 27 at City Hall.

Group's survey shows St. Petersburg residents don't like fire fee, but don't want more service cuts 09/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, September 13, 2012 12:32am]

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