The Brooksville City Council finally came to its senses and doused a plan to slap exorbitant new fees on property owners for fire rescue service. The proposed assessments, kicked around by the council since spring, would have obligated some businesses to pay tens of thousands of dollars in new costs, and also would have charged churches, governments and the owners of the city's most modest housing a fee for fire protection.
Four days ago, amid an uproar from the business community, the council retreated from its plan. It was tardy, but appropriate.
This unfair proposal was skewed from its inception, portrayed as a way to cut the property tax rate while assessing a share of public safety costs to all property owners regardless of exemptions or home values. The supposed motivation was to help attract new businesses to the city via a reduced tax rate, but that strategy backfired when existing businesses received their tax notices last month without the promised millage reduction.
Several banded together, retained an attorney and protested the costs as inequitable and potentially unconstitutional. The fee scheduled assessed each single-family home $76, but charged commercial, industrial, government buildings and churches on a square-foot basis. The owner of a self-storage business said she received a fire assessment notice for $7,472 in addition to the more than $8,900 in proposed property taxes.
She wasn't alone. Combined, the city's churches would have had to pay $6,200 a year and the nonprofit Brooksville Health Care Center, a 180-bed nursing home for Medicare and Medicare patients, would have been assessed more than $100,000. It was an absurd ploy to balance the city budget on the backs of institutions with limited resources.
The fees, as proposed, would have generated $630,000 toward the fire department's proposed $1.6 million budget. The council, however, also must scrutinize the spending side of the ledger, not just seek new revenue sources. For instance, why does the fire department need the new position of fire inspector?
The task of providing essential public services amid declining property values, voter-approved property exemptions and recession-driven drops in other tax revenues is a challenge facing local governments across the state. Exploring user fees is a logical scenario when the fee is assessed for a nonessential service like parks and recreation. Fees for public safety, though, remain objectionable particularly when the original idea was to finance a corresponding property tax cut.
The City Council was correct to extinguish this idea and to balance its budget the most-equitable way — using property taxes to pay for services.