ST. PETERSBURG — Rather than resorting to the old standby of raising property tax rates or dipping into reserves to cover a projected $13 million shortfall next year, City Council members are considering something entirely new.
It's a flat fee on all property to pay for firefighting. The fee has never been tried before in St. Petersburg. And it's a specialty of the law firm that now employs former St. Petersburg City Attorney Mike Davis.
Council members have not approved the "fire readiness" fee, but they did vote April 19 to pay $75,000 to the law firm where Davis works, Bryant Miller Olive, to write an ordinance that would allow for it. That payday could increase another $45,000 if the fee is approved.
Unlike other city services that are contracted out, legal services don't have to be competitively bid because of the specialized nature in certain areas of the law. City Attorney John Wolfe said he selected Bryant Miller Olive because another attorney with the firm, Mark Lawson, has the expertise the city needs to clear the legal hurdles and successfully launch the fee.
Wolfe, who was second in command under Davis and succeeded him when he left in 2000, said his former boss had nothing to do with the decision to award the contract and that he's dealt entirely with Lawson.
"Our choice of Mr. Lawson was based on the fact that he has developed this new more cost effective way of establishing the fees," Wolfe said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. "In other words our choice was based on the attorney not the firm."
Still, Davis, who declined to comment, has advocated for the fee in the past. In 2010, he helped pitch the concept of a fire fee during a workshop with council members and Wolfe. The fire fee stalled that year, partly because Mayor Bill Foster threatened to veto it.
It didn't gain traction last year, either. But it's come back with a vengeance this year.
As he did in 2010, Wolfe has pushed the fee as a sensible alternative to a property tax hike. The property tax is flawed because longtime homeowners pay less than new homeowners, an inequity that the fire fee doesn't have because every property owner would pay the same flat fee, Wolfe said.
The fee could bring in a windfall of cash to the city that would be used to pay for equipment, personnel and other costs associated with firefighting. Council members are discussing a range of about $5 a month to $10 a month, which would produce between $5.7 million to $12.1 million in a year.
The fee's already won over one council member, Jim Kennedy, who had previously said he was thinking about raising the property tax rate.
"I'm becoming a proponent of the fire readiness fee," Kennedy said last week. "It covers all bases. It's sustainable."
But it's not clear if a majority of council members or Foster will support it.
At least two council members — Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton — question the need for a fire fee when the city already has the means to produce new money by raising the property tax rate.
"I object that we have to pay $75,000 to do the legal work because we already have the millage rate increase," said Kornell. "That's wasteful."
The fee would be assessed on about 100,000 properties in the city. It would take between 60 and 150 days to establish as legally viable. Once the council holds two public hearings on the fee, and approves it, the fee also would need to be approved in Pinellas Circuit Court as a valid means to support a bond issue. If approved, it could then be appealed to the Florida Supreme Court.
That seems like a lot of work to Newton.
He points out that the city can raise the property tax rate to 10 mils. It's currently at 5.9125, leaving more than enough room for new revenue. A 1 mil increase would produce about $11.4 million.
"We were given the tool by referendum called ad valorem to provide for the services of the people in the city," said Newton, who, like Kornell, currently opposes both the fee and the rate hike. "We're not maxed out or capped out. I don't understand why we're creating new fees or taxes, or whatever you want to call it."
So far at least, objections to the fee have been limited to its applicability, not on the fact that Davis' firm has pushed it.
"I don't see a big issue there," Kornell said. "It's a fair question to ask. But every time John (Wolfe) has hired an outside attorney, they've been very professional."
Bryant Miller Olive is a large law with offices in Orlando, Atlanta, Tampa, Tallahassee and Washington D.C. It specializes in municipal law so it's logical that the firm would hire personnel like Davis and that firm would be then be hired by cities, said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
"Bryant Miller Olive has done a great job of marshalling talent in municipal law," Rouson said. "So it's hard for other firms to compete with that talent."
A lawyer himself, Rouson knows something on the subject.
In 2004, he was the president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP when he chained himself to an arm chair in Wolfe's office to protest the lack of black attorneys who served as the city's bond counsel, a lucrative field of law.
Despite the protest, Wolfe recommended that the city stick with its longtime bond counsel — Bryant Miller Olive.
"I questioned how they always came up with the work, but in my seasoning I now know why," Rouson said. "So much of a person's success is built on relationships. When you attract individuals that have these relationships it's hard to bypass that."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.