Pasco Commissioner Pat Mulieri decided she cared more about big business than the owners of the most modest homes in the county. Whatever the misguided motivation, at least the commissioner came to the correct conclusion this week as she helped extinguish the idea of charging new fees for fire service.
The proposed fees, championed initially by Mulieri, are a deluded way to shift a share of public service costs to people who can least afford it — seniors and other low-income residents who own their own homes valued at less than $25,000.
Mulieri's ire was raised by the owners of nearly 6,000 parcels in the county who pay no property taxes because of exemptions or tax status. The number includes almost 3,500 owner-occupied homes and the rest are buildings owned by non-profit groups like churches, veterans groups and other charities.
Mulieri opposed this idea 10 years ago when a split commission killed a $40-per-house fee on a 3-2 vote. The idea resurfaced in budget discussions in 2010 and Mulieri resurrected it again in February, saying every property owner should help finance the fire department.
But the same outcome prevailed this week when commissioners discovered the exorbitant bills they would be sending to business owners. Under a formula that charges different fees according to a property's use — residential, commercial, industrial, nursing homes and hospitals — commissioners learned a current commercial property owner could see fire protection costs rise from less than $1,500 in property taxes to nearly $9,000 for the new fee.
"If that's the methodology we have to use... then the discussion is over,'' said County Administrator John Gallagher, sparing commissioners from prolonging the convoluted logic.
The fire fee plan was irrelevant because the commission already has the ability to finance its fire department through ad valorem taxes charged in its municipal taxing district — roughly 90 percent of the county lying outside the six cities. Simply raising the current tax rate by a nickle per $1,000 of assessed value would produce $750,000 annually, more than enough for the department to hire 11 firefighters sought by Chief Anthony Lopinto. Such a tax increase, if approved next year, would mean $3 extra for the owner of a home valued at $100,000 before homestead exemptions are applied.
The county fire department has been understaffed for several years amid constrained budgets from falling tax rolls that required the department to give up 42 positions, including 33 firefighters and four inspectors, over a three-year period. To curb overtime costs, the commission increased the fire tax rate to $1.43 per $1,000 of property value in 2010, allowing Lopinto to hire 15 new firefighters.
This week, Lopinto said the department had already exhausted more than one-sixth of its annual overtime budget in just the first month of the fiscal year and could be facing so-called brown-outs when trucks respond with only two firefighters instead of three. Such a tactic reduces personnel costs, but increases safety risks.
The fire department shouldn't have to come begging just five weeks into the 2013 fiscal year. Commissioners need to adequately finance their public safety services with a fair property tax, not some gimmicky fee that requires people, regardless of their ability to pay, to pony up more for an essential government service.