No property tax for Pinellas Suncoast fire district residents after reversal by board

Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District station in Indian Rocks Beach
Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District station in Indian Rocks Beach
Published September 29 2017
Updated September 30 2017

INDIAN SHORES — Residents of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District will not face a property tax next year after commissioners voted Friday to rescind the tax they had approved days earlier, ending for now a complex legal battle that pitted the county property appraiser and group of residents against the board.

The 4-0 vote, with Commissioner Lawrence Schear absent, came after residents expressed concern over the legality of collecting the tax when a judge ruled against the district in a lawsuit challenging the referendum that created the tax.

The board met in an emergency meeting Friday to reconsider the tax rate of 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value they had approved at the final budget hearing Wednesday. Residents packed both meetings, many of whom pleaded with the board not to move forward with the property tax.

"No one minds helping first responders, but we would like it to be done lawfully and with accountability," said Edward Hoofnagle, the district resident and Indian Rocks Beach commissioner who filed the referendum lawsuit, during Wednesday's meeting.

The next day, Property Appraiser Mike Twitty asked the court for clarity on whether he should reflect the tax on the tax roll.

Twitty also condemned the actions of the board in approving the 50-cent rate Wednesday, saying it's a decision that was "damaging to the public trust that so many elected and appointed officials in this county work incredibly hard to instill every day."

Friday morning, Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold issued a ruling telling the office not to add the property tax to the tax roll.

Under pressure from the new ruling, and scrutiny from the residents in the audience, fire board attorney Jeff Albinson on Friday did an on-the-fly resolution that took back Wednesday's vote, killing the tax altogether.

Commissioner Chairman Joe Bruni declined to comment after Friday's meeting. Commissioner Laura Martin, who represents Indian Rocks Beach — where most of the opposing residents are from — said she was happy with the outcome of Friday's meeting.

"I don't see any reason that we shouldn't go ahead and do what we did today, which was get together with all these people and try to find some unanimity," she said. "That doesn't mean everything is behind us. The fire district will just have to do what they need to do with the monies they have."

The district has already filed a notice to appeal and will decide in October whether to pursue that course.

District leaders have warned from the start of the campaign for the property tax more than a year ago that the district would have to lay off staff and close at least one station without it.

When asked why she initially voted to approve the tax, Martin said she "didn't understand what was going on," adding that she agreed with Twitty's comments.

"Stuff got shoved at me so fast that some of it slipped past me," she said. "I felt bad about it to tell you the truth."

It appeared that, after Wednesday's contentious vote and a rocky start to the meeting Friday, residents were happy with the final outcome as well.

After the vote, the room broke into applause.

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.