ST. PETERSBURG — A year ago, Mayor Bill Foster called it a "backdoor way to raise taxes."
That was then. Now, while he said he still opposes a fee to help pay for fire service, he said he won't be so quick to threaten to veto it.
The fee would be a flat rate of at least $5 a month charged on all 100,000 properties in the city, including those that don't get taxed, such as nonprofits and churches.
Foster said Tuesday he was uncertain about the fee for next year's budget, which starts in October. However, for the 2013 budget he said he likely would not veto it.
The reason is that the economic outlook for the city continues to be grim.
Property tax revenue is in a seemingly endless free fall, expected to drop at least another $4.1 million next year. The fire department's budget is especially tight. Next year's proposed reductions include the elimination of $271,460 in overtime, pulling an engine from service, and losing seven positions now vacant.
The cuts may increase response times, fire Chief James Large said, but added that he has everything he needs next year to maintain current services.
However, that won't be the case in 2013 if Pinellas County commissioners agree with a consultant and reduce the share of property tax money St. Petersburg receives from $12.5 million to $5 million. The money pays for emergency medical services, which is part of a larger discussion about consolidating city and county services. The proposed $7 million cut in two years is already causing officials to scramble.
"Our concern is why wait a whole year," Large said. "We need to figure out what to do now. Time will fly."
Council members will huddle with Foster on Thursday to discuss the options. Already, several have endorsed the fee.
"I'm more than willing to fund the firefighters," council member Leslie Curran said.
At $5 a month, the fee would raise $6 million.
Foster said he also wants the City Council to consider getting a referendum on the November ballot that would ask voters if the city should provide emergency medical service, or as he calls it, "health care."
"The public doesn't necessarily care about discussions of consolidating things like libraries," Foster said. "But they do care about the consolidation of police, fire and EMS."
So let the residents decide if they want the county to do it, Foster said. He doesn't think the county can do it cheaper.
"They're considering cutting $7 million from our budget," Foster said. "I can't do that."
Neither can Large, who is in limbo until he knows what county commissioners will decide. If they reduce St. Petersburg's share of revenue, he said he'd have to eliminate 40 EMS positions next year.
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.