Thursday, December 14, 2017
Editorials

Complex, regressive fire fee needs to go

Just how regressive is St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster's plan to raise $10 million by collecting a fee for fire protection from every property owner? The so-called break he's willing to provide low-income owners isn't a break at all. The city would just defer the fee collection until a property is sold — through a lien. With budget decisions due in September, the City Council should reject Foster's plan. If St. Petersburg needs more money, a reasonable increase in the property tax rate or the use of some city reserves combined with spending cuts would be more equitable and defensible.

Despite growing criticism, Foster shows no interest in adjusting the complex plan to avoid increasing the city's property tax rate, which hasn't been raised in two decades. Foster would charge a flat fee of up to $75 on every nongovernment parcel in the city and a second, prorated fee based on the value of the buildings of the property, with the assessment value of buildings capped at $10 million per parcel. Council members quickly expressed concerns about low-income property owners, who under Florida property laws frequently pay reduced or no property taxes because of the state's $50,000 homestead exemption.

But Foster's response isn't relief at all. The city would place liens on such properties so that when they eventually sell, the city gets paid with interest. His plan does nothing to address the plan's flaws: A flat fee combined with a cap on the prorated portion for the highest-valued properties disproportionately shifts more of government's costs onto lower-valued properties.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente reported last week, that means the $13 million Arlington Arbor affordable housing tower downtown would pay $2,375 in fire fees. That's the same amount as Tyrone Square Mall, valued at almost 10 times more at $115 million. But churches and nonprofits that provide vital social services to the area — and are exempt under law from property taxes — will also have to pony up. The bill for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg would be about $50,000 for its various properties.

Council member Karl Nurse, who sided with Foster in the preliminary 5-3 vote on the fire fee, has said he wants to remove that $10 million assessment cap, lower the flat fee and exempt nonprofits — and that without changes he won't vote for final passage.

But the council should kill this plan. Beyond being regressive, it is bad policy to put critical city services in financial silos. It reduces elected officials' discretion at the same time it hands leverage to the firefighters union, already one of the city's most politically influential special interests. What's next? A police fee? A citywide parks fee?

St. Petersburg would become the second Tampa Bay local government (after Brooksville) to adopt a fire fee, an idea pushed by the Bryant Miller Olive law firm as a way for cities to regain some autonomy from state lawmakers who continue to interfere with local government property tax collection. But reacting to legislative fiat with bad, overly complex policy that shifts the burden to the poor and eliminates elected officials' discretion is no solution. Foster should have already given up this scheme. Since he won't, the City Council should.

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