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St. Petersburg would collect fire fee from low-income residents via property liens

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster has talked about sparing the city's poorest residents from a proposed fire tax on properties to plug a $10 million hole in next year's budget.

What has been less clear is that Foster's exemption for low-income residents is actually a deferment. The city would place liens on all properties whose owners can't afford the fee. The fees would be due if the properties were ever sold or transferred.

Residents also would be charged interest and recording fees after signing a deferral agreement with the city.

"When that homestead is converted to cash, the city should get its cut," Foster said Thursday. "It's not an exemption."

Council members Wengay Newton and Karl Nurse, who represent two of the city's poorest districts, oppose the deferment.

"It ought to be a straight-out exemption," said Nurse, who noted that it's unlikely the city could collect the fees from liens.

Newton agreed.

The county, he said, doesn't put liens on properties whose owners are exempt from property taxes.

Newton is against the so-called fire readiness fee all together, which the council preliminarily approved July 12 as an option for closing the budget gap.

He thinks the city should raise property taxes instead. "We shouldn't be circumventing the process" by creating a new fire fee, Newton said. "It's attacking the less-fortunate people."

Residents can weigh in on the fee or other budget issues at public hearings set for Sept. 13 and 27. After the hearings, the council could decide to scrap or modify the fee, raise property taxes instead or dip into reserves to balance the budget.

The fire fee currently calls for all property owners — including nonprofit groups that don't pay property taxes — to be charged a flat fee between $65 and $75 for each lot and 23 cents per $1,000 of the lot's appraised structural value.

Excluding government buildings, all of the city's 106,000 parcels would pay. Of those parcels, 6,984 currently don't pay any municipal taxes.

Foster, who opposes raising property taxes, said he believes the fire fee is the best way to raise revenue because it makes everyone pay for city services, not just businesses and homeowners with more income.

"It will cost about 20 cents a day for some," Foster said. "It's less than (the price of) a cup of coffee a day."

He fielded questions from several residents Thursday at his Mayor's Night Out at Bay Vista Recreation Center.

Vince Cocks, vice president of Faith House, a halfway house in St. Petersburg, said Foster didn't explicitly tell residents they would have to pay the fee when properties are sold.

"I reminded him with interest and with recording fees," Cocks said. "Foster is truly out of touch with what goes on south of Central."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

St. Petersburg would collect fire fee from low-income residents via property liens 08/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 5:27pm]
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