The Brooksville City Council needs to ensure it doesn't burn its poorest property owners as the city investigates new ways to pay for fire rescue service. The city has had a fire district on its books since 2004, but never chose to fund it separately from the property tax financing all of its municipal services. Now, the council is considering a plan to assess property owners a fee for fire rescue while simultaneously lowering the general fund property tax rate.
The beneficiaries of this tax swap are the owners of commercial and vacant property and the city's highest-priced residences. Meanwhile, the owner/occupants of the city's least-expensive homesteads will pay a nearly sevenfold hike under the estimated residential rates provided by city staff.
It's akin to taking from the poor and giving to the rich. Asking churches, senior citizens, the working poor and other owners of modest houses to foot more of the fire protection bill in the city is simply unfair.
The search for alternative funding sources is understandable given the realities of reduced property values, larger property exemptions, and recession-driven declines in sales tax and state revenue sharing dollars. But the fire fee also is being pitched as an economic development tool.
Reducing the city's tax rate from more than 6 mills, or $6 per $1,000 of a property's taxable value, to less than 4 mills is perceived as a way to provide an incentive to new commerce. Cutting the tax rate by more than one-third for the most valuable property while asking poorer residents to pony up more for an essential public safety service is a misguided approach to economic recruitment.
Brooksville has multiple attributes to offer potential businesses, including an eager work force, multi-laned east-west access to both Interstate 75 and the Suncoast Parkway, and an enterprise zone with built-in tax advantages. It also must overcome the drawbacks of an aging utility infrastructure and a confusing one-way traffic pattern through downtown. Pushing more of the cost of basic services on the property owners who can least afford it is not a flattering incentive to offer new businesses, the executives of which often judge a community on how well it serves residents in need.
Property taxes are one of the few revenue sources to have the progressive feature of asking people of greater means to contribute more to their government. It's a better measure of tax fairness than asking everyone, regardless of means, to pay for essential services. A fee that disproportionately burdens the poor is not the answer to financing the city's public safety needs.