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Fire tax increase may hit some unincorporated areas

What will it cost?

The County Commission is considering raising the tax rate for property owners in seven of the 12 dependent fire districts that cover parts of the unincorporated county. Below is a chart showing the current tax rate, the proposed 2009-10 rate and what it would mean to property owners' tax bills.

District Current Proposed Percentage Tax tax rate* tax rate* increase increase**

Belleair Bluffs 0.8535 2.6430 209.7 $178.95

Gandy 1.2072 1.3143 8.9 $10.71

Largo 1.9005 2.4769 30.3 $57.64

Safety Harbor 2.0093 2.4252 20.7 $41.59

Tarpon Springs 1.6837 2.3745 41 $69.08

High Point 2.4410 2.7478 12.6 $30.68

Tierra Verde 1.3997 1.5000 7.2 $10.03

* Cost per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. ** Tax increase figures are for the owner of $150,000 home with a $50,000 homestead exemption.

Source: Pinellas County

The tax rate for emergency medical services is expected to remain the same next year, but the news is not so good for those who live in some unincorporated areas where fire taxes are expected to go up.

Pinellas County Administrator Bob LaSala told commissioners last week that he kept the tax rate stable by using $3.2 million in county funds to help balance the EMS budget.

"This won't be sustainable in the future," LaSala said. He asked the commission for permission to study the EMS system with a view to preparing for expected declines in property tax revenues over the next few years.

The EMS tax affects all property owners in the county.

Fire taxes, which all property owners pay, are figured differently, however. City dwellers pay their fire taxes to the municipalities where they live as part of the overall revenue collected to run the city. And some residents in unincorporated Pinellas live in independent fire districts. Independent fire districts, such as Lealman and East Lake, are run by elected boards that set budgets and decide what the fire tax rate will be for those areas.

Still others in the unincorporated area live in so-called dependent fire districts. These people look to the county for fire service, but because the county does not have a fire department, it contracts the service to cities. The County Commission acts as the representatives of the taxpayers and sets the tax rate after negotiating deals with the cities. The county has 12 of these dependent fire districts spread across Pinellas, from Tierra Verde to the unincorporated Tarpon Springs area.

All this means is that fire tax rates vary from city to city and area to area depending on the level of service, property values and other factors.

Under the current budget, for example, the tax rate in the dependent districts runs the gamut from a low of $0.8535 per $1,000 of assessed property value in Belleair Bluffs to a high of $2.4410 per $1,000 of assessed property value in the High Point area. High Point is in mid-Pinellas, east of Largo and north of Pinellas Park.

For property owners in five of those districts, the 2009-10 proposed budget is good news because the tax rate is expected to remain the same: Clearwater, Dunedin, Pinellas Park, Seminole and South Pasadena.

But taxpayers in seven of those unincorporated areas might not be so lucky. They could see their tax rates go up — a lot in some cases.

The reasons for the proposed increases are many, said Mike Cooksey, head of fire services for the county. In most cases, the proposed millage increase is a safety factor because state law will not allow governments to raise tax rates after a certain date but before they are finally adopted. The government can drop those, however, and Cooksey said some could be reduced before final adoption in September.

Others, like Safety Harbor and Gandy, are seeing tax increases despite a lower budget because of the severe drop in property values in those areas. The proposed huge increase in Belleair Bluffs is a function of the situation there. Voters will decide in September whether to keep their department or contract with Clearwater. If they keep the department, the tax rate will go up to $2.6430 per $1,000 of assessed property value. If they go with Clearwater, the rate will remain about where it is — $0.8535 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Fire tax increase may hit some unincorporated areas 07/18/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 18, 2009 10:59am]
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