Thursday, January 18, 2018
Editorials

Financing Hernando fire department must be fair to all

In May, County Commissioner Wayne Dukes said out-of-towners should acquiesce to higher taxes to finance Hernando County's fire and rescue services. In June, Dukes said local property owners would be unwilling to do likewise. He suggested cutting proposed ambulance services to stave off public resentment from Spring Hill residents facing higher tax bills from the county.

Neither of the past suggestions are sound logic. The commissioner is proposing the wrong solutions to the financial dilemma created when voters declined to renew the taxing authority for the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District in 2011, forcing a consolidation with the county fire department.

On Tuesday, commissioners are scheduled to consider a new per-parcel fee for fire protection and a separate property tax for ambulance service to finance the combined departments.

The board should scrape the proposed fee, which is little more than an unfair tax shift to owners of the least expensive property in the county, and focus on a sensible property tax rate to pay for fire service.

Just as importantly, commissioners must refrain from making deployment decisions from the dais. In June, Dukes questioned the benefits of sending fire trucks on ambulance calls, and advocated reducing expenses by turning over more non-emergency transport calls to the private sector. But doing so trims a revenue source for the county and could trigger an even higher property tax to maintain adequate emergency services.

In the 2012 fiscal year, Hernando ambulances transported patients to 581 out-of-county locations and also completed 293 inter-facility transports, typically patients going from a hospital to a nursing home. Those accounted for just 3 percent of the 28,000 calls for service, but produced $672,000 or roughly 13 percent of the billings. Turning over a greater share of that revenue to a private ambulance company could kill a plan to beef up ambulance service for the county or translate to a higher property tax for residents.

It also doesn't address what is expected to be homeowners' biggest gripe – the proposed $171.44-per-lot fee that is a 12 percent reduction for residents outside of Spring Hill, but nearly triple the current property fire tax bill for a typical homestead formerly protected by the Spring Hill Fire Department.

Commissioners have kicked around financing ideas for nearly a year in anticipation of completing the merged the Spring Hill and county fire departments on Oct. 1. They talked of a sales tax referendum — the idea that prompted Dukes' to say visitors should gladly contribute to Hernando's public safety costs — and a confusing hybrid plan of fees and property taxes. But, a final decision is now looming in advance of millage notices to be mailed in August. The most sensible plan is a straight ad valorem tax in which owners of higher valued property pay a higher tax bill.

The alternative – an arbitrary scheme that treats non-profits and the owners of the least valuable property the same as the owner of upscale mansion – is an unreasonable attempt to charge everyone the same amount regardless of their ability to pay. The commission should kill this fee and devise a new definition of tax fairness.

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