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St. Petersburg's proposed fire fee dismays nonprofit groups

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rev. Louis Murphy is outraged about a city proposal that would assess property owners, including religious and other nonprofit organizations, a fee for fire protection.

"I certainly want to support the firefighters, no question about that, but I struggle with any more taxes," said Murphy, pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church.

Facing a budget deficit of $8 million, the City Council will consider an ordinance this week that will allow the city to levy the special assessment that is expected to raise about $10 million a year. Property owners, even nonprofit groups that don't pay property taxes, would be charged a flat fee of around $75 for each lot and about 24 cents per $1,000 of the lot's appraised structural value. The money would cover a portion of the city's firefighting budget and be used to help pay for equipment, personnel and other costs associated with firefighting that are normally covered by property taxes.

"This is just another burden when people are already struggling," said Murphy, whose church is in Midtown.

"I think there should be further discussion and looking for other ways to make up the shortfall." Other nonprofit organizations, already financially strapped, also are dismayed at the prospect of an additional expense.

Jane Trocheck Walker of Daystar Life Center, which assists the poor and homeless, said the downtown agency is "pinching pennies."

"The bigger issue is that people's rents are going to go up and those struggling with making house payments,'' she said.

"It may not seem like a lot of money . . . but people are struggling to recover one penny at a time and this is taking dollars away. I question the timing and the money we're spending looking at a new Pier, when we have people's safety services and people's ability to meet their basic needs at risk."

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, diocesan spokesman Frank Murphy said.

"Firefighting is very, very important, but in reality, they are going to be taking funds from institutions such as hospitals and churches that in reality are right now taking care of the people most injured by our economy," he said.

"I understand the city's shortfall in income, but a lot of institutions are having to face that and are having to deal with that themselves."

Last week council members voted 5-2 to move forward with the special assessment. The first reading of an ordinance addressing the measure has been scheduled for Thursday.

St. Petersburg has gone at least 22 years without raising the property tax rate, which dropped from $8.80 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable value in 1990 to its current rate of $5.91. City administrator Tish Elston said the city's property tax revenue has declined $35 million since fiscal year 2007.

Federal, state and county property will be exempt from the new fire fee, which would be used only for firefighting, not for emergency medical services, which are paid for through a countywide tax.

The new fee will help fund a portion of the firefighting budget, projected for the 2013 fiscal year to be about $33 million, Elston said.

Meanwhile some of those who will have to pay the new fee are still trying to determine how they will be affected.

"We really don't know the financial implications of it yet," said David Connelly, spokesman for St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts.

"All we know is what we've read in the Tampa Bay Times, so we are now going to explore the implications with the city and try to get a clear picture of what the financial obligations will be for the museum."

Michael Batiato, vice president for operations at the YMCA of Greater St. Petersburg, knows that it will be another expense for the organization.

"For the Y, at the end of the day, it just means money that can't go to people in need or money for reinvestment in facilities and programs. The big thing with us is we try to be as tight as possible, to control expenses," he said.

Like others, Linda Osmundson, executive director of Community Action Stops Abuse, said she understands the need to fund firefighting, but added that it appears that the city is giving with one hand and taking back with the other. CASA, which helps victims of abuse, gets a grant from the city, she said.

"We actually own several buildings. It could have a huge impact on us. Right now, we are struggling to raise funds," Osmundson said.

Murphy, whose congregation operates a school and day care and owns almost two blocks of property in a mostly impoverished area, said his church is trying to help the needy in its neighborhood.

"The poor and the working people are overtaxed," he said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

St. Petersburg's proposed fire fee dismays nonprofit groups 06/19/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 19, 2012 6:32pm]

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