ST. PETERSBURG — Many church and charity leaders are trying to rally voters against the city's proposed fire readiness fee, which could generate enough revenue to offset the city's $10 million budget shortfall next year.
Critics contend the fee is a regressive tax and fear many poor people aren't even aware the city is considering such a fee, which the City Council will vote on next month.
"The city is asleep," said Moses Green, associate pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church. "When they find out about this, they will be stunned. We're putting the word out."
Green's church at 3300 31st St. S would have to pay $497.39 if the fire fee is implemented.
Property owners, even nonprofit groups that don't pay property taxes, would be charged a flat fee between $65 and $75 for each lot and 23 cents per $1,000 of the value of the structures on that lot.
In the city's fee formula, property values are capped at $10 million.
While the city is looking at a low-income exemption for residents, Mayor Bill Foster said he still hasn't decided whether to exempt churches and charities.
"I'm still researching and talking to the community," Foster said Thursday. "I may do it, but it's not likely."
City Council voted 5-3 vote last month to move forward with the fee as one possible way to close the budget gap. Council members Wengay Newton, Steve Kornell and Charlie Gerdes voted against the fee.
Residents can weigh in on the fee or other budget issues at public hearings set for Sept. 13 and 27.
The council will have the final say on whether to implement the fire fee in its current form. The group could decide instead to raise property taxes, institute a combination of both, or dip into the city's $40 million in reserves to balance the budget.
The budget must be set by Oct. 1.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which has 21 institutions in the city, including its Tampa Bay headquarters, Catholic Charities and several schools, would have to pay an estimated $50,000 a year with the new fee.
The Most Rev. Bishop Robert N. Lynch has urged the city to dip into its $40 million in reserves. He hopes two more council members decide to oppose the fee, which he called an ill-conceived plan.
"The burden upon the fixed-income and low-income residents of this plan, however, is the most troubling," Lynch wrote in a letter to the Tampa Bay Times. "Flat taxes are patently unfair in that they hurt the most vulnerable the hardest."
Father John Tapp, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church, urged Foster to scrap the fee, which could be charged on all of the city's 106,000 property owners.
Holy Family, 301 78th Ave. NE, has five properties, with its highest fee being $943.
In a letter, Tapp said the fee represents a double tax which parishioners would owe on their homes as well as their tithes being used to pay parish fees.
"It will take away from the services we provide," Tapp said. "It's just another hit."
Some nonprofit leaders said they knew nothing about the fee.
For example, Arlington Arbor, an affordable housing tower downtown, is valued at nearly $13 million and would pay $2,375.
It's the same fee that would be charged to the owners of Tyrone Square Mall, which is valued at $115 million.
With a value of $4.2 million, Northside Baptist Church on 38th Avenue N would pay $1,224. Officials at both groups said they didn't know about the fee until asked about it by a Tampa Bay Times reporter.
Green, associate pastor at Friendship Missionary, isn't surprised.
The city needs to do a better job of telling residents about the proposed fee, he said, and shouldn't rely on newspapers and television to inform residents.
He wishes the city would include information about the two public budget hearings and the fire fee inside water bills mailed to homes.
"Poor people read their water bills," he said. "They don't watch the city's TV channel."
Foster is surprised that people don't know about the fee. He said he doesn't think enough residents would read inserts inside water bills.
Council member Karl Nurse, who voted to move the fire fee forward, represents one of the city's two majority-minority districts.
He plans to propose lowering the flat fee to $50 and removing the $10 million cap on values when the matter comes back before council next month. He also believes nonprofits need exemptions.
If the measures fail, Nurse said: "We'll see how the votes go."
Not all churches oppose the fee.
King of Peace Metropolitan Community Church on Fifth Avenue N would pay a $322.61 fire fee.
Peggy MacLeod, director of administration, said the church knows about the fee but isn't talking about it during services.
"It's not going to break us," she said. "We didn't think it would be a whole lot of money."
Mark Puente can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.