Saturday, April 21, 2018
News Roundup

St. Petersburg council member wants to resurrect controversial fire fee to raise revenue

ST. PETERSBURG — The controversial fire readiness fee is breathing again.

Two weeks after the City Council voted 6-2 to kill it, council member Jim Kennedy said he plans to ask the group to consider the fee again during tonight's budget hearing.

Kennedy fears the city could lose $2 million next year if voters pass several constitutional amendments that would lower property taxes collected by cities. He also worries about the $5 million the city plans to shift from reserves to plug an estimated $5.2 million shortfall in the 2012 budget, which closes Sunday.

"It's just looking forward going down the road," said Kennedy, who voted with council member Bill Dudley to support the fee. "I don't want to see the deconstruction of the city."

He knows he faces an uphill battle as several of his colleagues were adamantly opposed to it.

"I don't support the fire fee on any level," said council member Charlie Gerdes. "I just don't think we need another method to reach into people's pockets."

Council member Steve Kornell said he won't support Kennedy's proposal — and neither will Wengay Newton.

"The fire fee is dead," Newton said. "It was a bad idea. If Mr. Kennedy is worried about next year, we have reserves."

Mayor Bill Foster pushed the fire fee as a way to raise nearly $9 million to fill next year's budget deficit. The fee, Foster said, would be the most equitable way to generate money since every property owner would pay.

Kennedy, who often supports Foster, said the mayor didn't ask him to reintroduce the fire fee after the council rejected it Sept. 13.

The council instead voted 6-2 to raise property tax rates for 2013 at that meeting — marking the city's first increase in 22 years.

It's unclear how much taxes will go up. The council set the tentative millage rate at $6.7742 per $1,000 of a property's taxable value, up from the current $5.9125. But the group could still decide to lower the rate when they approve the budget or use a combination of reserves and higher taxes to cover the gap.

Foster's most recent version of the fire fee called for property owners to pay $50 per parcel instead of $75 and $0.21 per $1,000 of its appraised structural value, down from $0.23 per $1,000.

Kennedy is now pushing for a less expensive flat fee of $25 or $30, which would generate roughly $2.5 million to $3 million a year.

At the Sept. 13 meeting, the council voted down a similar proposal made by Jeff Danner, who suggested a $20 flat fee with no variable rate.

Danner said he isn't against imposing a $20 fee since it's "important to have other resources" to generate revenue.

Council member Karl Nurse said he is uncomfortable adding a fee because constitutional amendments are on the ballot. He said Wednesday that he will decide how to vote after hearing the pitch.

Council chairwoman Leslie Curran could not be reached for comment. She voted against the fee before.

Critics of the fee contend the best way to raise money is to increase property taxes, but Kennedy believes the tax hike is too severe.

For example, a homeowner with an assessed value of $96,770 paid $572.15 in property taxes last year. With the higher rate approved by the council, the homeowner would pay an additional $84.

In the last two weeks, Kennedy said he has spoken with residents who support the fire fee, though dozens opposed it at the budget hearing.

Dudley said he thinks it's fair to ask property owners to pay $1 a week for the fire fee. Still, he acknowledged that many of the city's homeowners are struggling financially. He said he'd even support allowing them to add extra money on their water bill to alleviate paying the fee all at once. "I think it's a good idea," Dudley said. "It's not too much to ask."

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