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Mayor Bill Foster now says nonprofits shouldn't have to pay the fire fee

ST. PETERSBURG — After teetering for two weeks, Mayor Bill Foster has decided that churches and charities shouldn't have to pay the fire fee he is proposing to plug a $10 million hole in next year's budget.

Foster said he will ask the City Council to exempt nonprofit groups after saying this month he was leaning against it.

City officials have come under fire in recent weeks as opposition has mounted against the proposed fire fee. Critics say the fee is a regressive tax on the poor designed to help wealthy homeowners and businesses save thousands of dollars in property taxes.

Other options for balancing the budget include tapping into city reserves or raising property taxes.

Foster has said he already cut $2.1 million from the general fund and that anymore cuts could "lead to the deterioration of our city and the deconstruction of what we have built up over the last 20 years."

The fee would stave off more cuts, which have trimmed 300 jobs, reduced hours for pools and libraries and cut park maintenance in the past few years.

In the proposed budget Foster sent to the City Council last month, property owners would pay $75 per parcel and 23 cents per $1,000 of a lot's appraised structural value.

On Wednesday, Foster said he plans to "considerably" lower the two amounts. He declined to release the new figures until he informs the council after next week's Republican National Convention.

"I have numbers in my mind," he said. "It would equate to about $1 a week."

The council voted 5-3 to support the fee on July 12 in order to finalize a balanced budget by Oct. 1.

Foster's latest details come after council member Karl Nurse told the Tampa Bay Times last week that he wouldn't support the fire fee without an exemption for nonprofits and a decrease in the $75 flat fee.

Nurse also wants to eliminate the $10 million cap on values, which could appease critics who say the fee is designed to benefit wealthy landowners.

A final decision won't be made until after public hearings on the budget scheduled for Sept. 13 and 27.

Nurse called Foster's latest revelation "considerable progress," but said he still planned to "make the motions for the other changes."

Council Chair Leslie Curran said she doesn't know how other council members are leaning on the fire fee, but said she has received many emails from residents who are against it.

The council, she cautioned, needs to deeply examine Foster's budget before deciding how to raise revenue.

Local religious leaders also have said they fear that many residents don't know about the proposed fee to voice their opposition.

Anna Davis, a 79-year-old retired teacher, is one of them.

"I can't afford this," Davis said from the front porch of her home in the Historic Roser Park neighborhood. "Where am I going to get the money for that?"

Davis has lived in the 762-square-foot home since 1971. Because its assessed value is $13,679, she doesn't pay property taxes.

Under Florida's homestead exemption, owners don't pay property taxes on the first $25,000 in assessed value. Of the 100,000 parcels in the city, 6,984 are like Davis and don't pay any municipal taxes.

The fire fee would cost Davis $77 a year.

Foster said he won't exempt owners who don't pay property taxes. He believes the fire fee is the most equitable method to balance the budget because all property owners rely on city services.

Low-income residents could apply for a deferral, which would save them from paying right now but involve placing a lien on the property that could be collected when the home was sold or passed to heirs. Owners would still have to pay recording fees and interest when the deed is transferred.

State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, recently posted messages opposing the fee on Twitter and Facebook. He believes the fire fee will burden poor residents.

He is not in favor of cutting more city services, but said the fairer way to raise revenue would be to slightly increase property taxes and dip into reserves to balance the budget.

Kriseman said he had intended to keep his opposition to himself, but couldn't when Foster declared he wouldn't exempt poor residents.

Placing liens on properties is not a good way to help the city's poorest residents, he said.

"We're talking about impacting a clear title," said Kriseman, a former city council member who hasn't ruled out a run for mayor in 2013. "We'd be doing the same thing to poor residents that we do to code violators. That is not fair."

Foster disagreed.

He pointed out that liens are placed on properties for many reasons, including mortgages.

"A home equity line is a lien," Foster said. "It's evidence of indebtedness. If council wants to change that, they can."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

Mayor Bill Foster now says nonprofits shouldn't have to pay the fire fee 08/23/12 [Last modified: Friday, August 24, 2012 12:16am]

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