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Some Brooksville businesses teaming up to fight fire fees

BROOKSVILLE — When the Brooksville City Council voted in June to adopt a fire assessment on all residential and commercial property in the city, many residents and business owners expected to receive a break on their property taxes.

But with the council's tentative approval of a property tax rate of 6.069 mills — the same as last year — those hopes might be dashed. What's worse, some Brooksville business owners say, is that the new fire assessment fees will more than double what they will owe the city each year.

Diane Bernick, owner of Broad and Wiscon Self Storage off of Broad Street, said that the owners of commercial and industrial property have been unfairly targeted to pay hefty assessments based on the square footage of their businesses. According to the Truth in Millage notice on one of her properties, her proposed 2010 property taxes would be $8,917. With the addition of $7,472 in fire fees, that would bring the total cost to $16,389, nearly a 118 percent increase compared with last year.

"It's completely insane," said Bernick, who has owned the storage business for eight years. "Here we are, trying our best to make a go of it in a terrible economy, and the city does this to us. I just don't understand it."

Bernick isn't alone. In fact, she has banded with other business owners who intend to fight the assessments. Earlier this week, they hired a lawyer to represent their interests and intend to be present when the City Council holds the first of two public hearings on the city's 2010-11 budget at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

The fire fees approved by council members in June have caused a rumble in recent weeks. Expected to raise $649,479 toward the Fire Department's $1.7 million budget, they were originally sold to the council as a fair method of collecting revenue from every property owner in the city. Residential properties will be assessed $76.26, half of the amount originally proposed.

Fire Chief Tim Mossgrove told the council in March that, based on his calculations, most homeowners would see a benefit from a lower property tax rate and the city's current 6.069 millage rate could drop as much as 2 mills.

One mill is equivalent to $1 of tax for each $ 1,000 of assessed, nonexempt real property.

However, once the city's 2010-11 tax rolls were released in June, officials realized that the continued decline in property values meant the city would see $404,000 less in revenue than the previous year. When added to the loss of an estimated $350,000 in revenue from the city's now-defunct red-light camera program, the city was facing what Mayor Lara Bradburn called "a sizable financial hole."

Bradburn said that while she initially opposed the idea of a fire fee, she hoped it would at least bring more equity in assuring that every property owner pays toward having the benefit of fire service.

"I don't think it was ever meant that everyone would see a decrease in their property taxes," Bradburn said. "Some will and some won't. In the end, I think it will balance out on average."

At the council's Aug. 24 budget workshop, Bradburn and council member Joe Johnston III voted for the city to adopt a lower millage rate of 5.869 mills. Council members Richard Lewis, Joe Bernardini and Frankie Burnett voted to keep the current 6.069 rate, saying the city needs the extra revenue in its reserves.

"Right now, (the reserve account) is at about $350,000, and I just don't think that's enough for a city in an area that's known to get hurricanes," Bernardini said. "I just thought we needed to make sure we were better prepared."

Although Bernardini and Bradburn acknowledge they're aware of complaints about the fire fees, both wondered why those critics haven't shown up at any of the budget hearings.

"I hope they do show up on Wednesday," Bradburn said. "We welcome everyone's input."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com

Some Brooksville businesses teaming up to fight fire fees 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 8:19pm]
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