Monday, November 20, 2017
Editorials

Council wise to douse fire fee

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The financial woes for the city of New Port Richey continue, but the City Council correctly extinguished any talk of a regressive fee for fire safety as a way to balance its budget.

Over the past year, the council has asked property owners to absorb a 14 percent increase in the tax rate and higher fees for streetlights and stormwater management. Expecting its citizenry to swallow a new charge for the fire department as well would have been imprudent.

A one-size-fits-all fire fee, assigned per parcel rather than according to the value of property and its improvements, is simply a cost shift. It would push more of the existing public safety expenses onto the city's poorest homeowners and, potentially, non-profits depending on how the ordinance was written. A previous council recognized the unfairness of such a system and voted down a similar plan 10 years ago. The idea resurfaced last week during a council workshop on public safety.

Council members immediately balked. Good thinking. Consider the complicated system put in place in the city of Brooksville. It charges a per-parcel "readiness to serve'' fee and a second assessment based on the value of structure on the property. Typically, elected officials rationalize the ploy as a way to ensure that everybody pays for a share of fire services.

Actually, it would have been unfair to average homeowners, but a boon to commercial interests and to the owners of expensive lots, like those along the Pithlachascotee River, when compared to traditional ad valorem taxes that produce larger tax bills for properties of higher values.

A per-lot fee also fails to recognize that less than 60 percent of the homes in the city are owner occupied. It means the owners of a substantial amount of the residential property in the city already are paying a so-called fair share of public safety costs because they cannot claim homestead exemptions.

In the coming months, the council must confront a 4.2 percent decline in its tax rolls, rising personnel costs attributed to insurance and retirement contributions and a nearly $1 million subsidy to the redevelopment budget. A presumed windfall from the utilities budget will help, but difficult choices remain.

Fortunately, council members recognized the financial gimmickry tied to a fire fee shouldn't be one of those choices.

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