ST. PETERSBURG — Almost every property owner in the city — including churches and nonprofits — might be paying a $5 monthly fee to help cover fire service by next year.
The City Council is strongly considering creating a fire district to close a $10.5 million deficit in the city's public safety budget, which includes police and fire.
"It's something we need to look at," said council Chairwoman Leslie Curran. "This is fair. It also addresses all the absentee landlords. I'd support looking at it."
The council voted Thursday to hold a May 27 workshop to discuss the fee, which would amount to about $60 a year for property owners. In the meantime, the city staff will research the legal ramifications and its use in other jurisdictions.
The drop in property values, which subsidize police and fire, has forced city officials to scramble for new solutions. Their budgets combined cost the city about $115 million. But tax revenues only reach about $80 million. Tim Finch, the city's budget director, said he doesn't expect a recovery any time soon, either.
"It's not a pretty picture," Finch said.
Yet it's not the police and fire departments that are facing the cuts. Mayor Bill Foster said he doesn't propose major cuts for either one. So the fee, if approved, would help save other departments, such as parks and recreation, from making deeper cuts to subsidize public safety, fire Chief James Large said.
City Attorney John Wolfe said a fee of $5 could raise more than $5 million to $6 million a year for the fire department. He said such a fee is legally defensible because it treats each property the same. So a Walmart would pay the same as a house, a church the same as a mall. He said other government buildings, such as schools and courthouses, would likely be exempt.
But passing it might be a challenge. It was proposed back in the late 1990s, only to be dropped.
"It was politically unpalatable back then," Large said. "I can't imagine it being more palatable today."
Yet given the current economic environment, council members were open to it.
"It's a selection of which bad choices do we want," said Karl Nurse. "You have to consider all the choices."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.