NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco fire Chief Tony Lopinto says his department is burning through its overtime budget at an alarming rate and that county commissioners should find a way to boost his staff to curtail those costs.
At a commission workshop Tuesday, Lopinto shared an eyebrow-raising figure: He's already spent nearly $80,000 of the department's $450,000 overtime budget. That's after only a month into the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.
The problem, Lopinto said, is that the department doesn't have enough firefighters and must use overtime to cover shifts when people are out sick or restricted to light duty. The staff shrank over the past few years through attrition, as vacant positions were eliminated to save money.
Lopinto asked for another 11 employees to bring his staff to a pre-crash level and keep overtime costs to a minimum.
"It's not really appropriate to fund the department with more overtime," he said. "You should use it for incidental days when an enormous number of people are out."
Adding those new firefighters couldn't happen until next summer, when commissioners approve next year's budget. In the meantime, the department's overtime budget could disappear by May if the current trend continues. Lopinto is considering several options to rein in costs, but he said he might have to begin reducing the number of emergency responders who go out on some calls from three to two.
Such a move, called "brown outs," could increase the risk for accidents. Experts say fire trucks should have four people, so two can wait outside, ready to run inside to help if something goes wrong. Over the years, Pasco has added enough staff to go from two workers per truck to three. That figure has slipped as property tax revenue fell during the down economy.
"The goal needs to be to get back to where we once were," Lopinto said. "If I had those 11 people today, I wouldn't be on the verge of taking some action to curtail the overtime."
Commissioners on Tuesday dismissed one way to reach that goal: a new fire fee on homes and businesses. A flat fee for homes would mean some 5,900 properties that don't pay property taxes now would contribute to fire service. That includes churches and nonprofit groups, as well as low-income homes with homestead exemptions that wipe out their entire tax bill.
Depending on how much of the fire budget is paid for with the fee, a home would be charged up to $65.
"Everyone uses services, they should pay something," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
But she and other commissioners recoiled when they saw how much the plan might affect some businesses, which would pay by the square foot.
Budget Chief Mike Nurrenbrock used the example of a 45,000-square-foot building valued at $1 million. It currently pays about $1,400 in property taxes toward fire service. Under the new fee, it could expect to pay more than $8,000. A consultant said the county could adopt a flat rate for both residential and commercial properties, but it might not hold up under a court challenge.
"If that's the methodology we have to use in order to attack the issue of people not paying, then I think the discussion's over," said County Administrator John Gallagher.
The plan would have meant an overall tax cut for some taxpayers, including those with larger homes and fewer exemptions. In 2002, commissioners rejected a similar fee on a 3-2 vote.
The other option to meet Lopinto's request? Raising the property tax rate for fire services.
To collect $750,000 to hire the new firefighters and cover increased health care costs, the rate would have to increase from $1.42 in taxes for each $1,000 in assessed value to $1.47. For a $200,000 home with $50,000 in exemptions, that would mean roughly an extra $8 in taxes.
Said Commissioner Jack Mariano: "Isn't that a lot better than putting a … $50 extra fee across the board?"
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.