Sunday, December 17, 2017
Editorials

Brooksville must avoid unfair attempt to finance fire department

The Brooksville City Council is again trying an ill-conceived money grab from the city's most modest owner-occupied homes as well as charities, churches and other tax-exempt entities. They are the targets of yet another fire service financing scheme being developed by a Council-retained consultant.

Through a proposed two-tiered fire assessment, every property owner — regardless of their tax status or ability to pay — would be charged a base fee for fire service. Additionally, a second assessment would be charged to property owners based on the value of the structure on the lot.

This is the same untested methodology Council members balked at a year ago, saying they didn't care to be the guinea pigs responsible for defending a new formula against a legal challenge. An expected decline in property values — after the tax rolls lost a third of its value over the past three years — has Council rekindling the idea as a way to balance the upcoming budget.

Unfortunately, Council keeps looking in the same pockets. The city has 4,261 real estate parcels, according to the Hernando Property Appraiser's Office, of which just 146 are owner-occupied single-family homes that pay no property taxes because they are valued at less than the $25,000 homestead exemption. Additionally, there are 306 parcels owned by governments, nonprofits or other tax-exempt entities. Combined, that is 10.6 percent of the real estate within the city that would fall under the fire assessments. It's little more than an unfair attempt to squeeze money from people and groups who can least afford it while Council can tout itself as holding the line on property taxes.

Two years ago, Council doused its fee plan — then-based on square footage and calls for service — because it would have obligated some businesses to pay tens of thousands of dollars in new costs. At the time, the city had proposed the fee as a way to cut its property tax rate to induce economic development.

A tax cut came anyway because of market forces. Even with declining property values, the city has maintained its tax rate at 6.37 mills or $6.37 of tax for $1,000 of assessed property value. The status quo millage translated into less revenue for the city government and a tax cut for the owner of any commercial property that lost value and for all homeowners whose values have dropped below the Save Our Homes exemption.

The City Council shouldn't push new public safety assessments on places of worship, modest-valued homes, nonprofit nursing homes and government entities. Likewise, it doesn't need a second value-based assessment just to try to appear equitable.

A fair system already exists via ad valorem taxes and that is how the city should finance its fire department. The gimmickry should end and City Council simply should set its next tax rate at a reasonable level to continue one of its essential missions — providing adequate public safety.

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