The St. Petersburg City Council should stand up today for all the city's property owners — not just its wealthiest ones — and reject Mayor Bill Foster's plan for a new fire protection fee. Public deliberations on next year's city budget begin tonight, and the council is expected to approve raising additional revenue after years of cutting spending in the face of declining property tax collections. But instead of enacting a complex and regressive fee, the council should pursue an appropriate mix of options that includes cutting spending, using reserves and raising the city's property tax rate for the first time in 22 years.
Since proposing such a fire fee to help close a $10 million gap in next year's city budget, Foster has tried to make it more palatable by exempting nonprofits and charities and deferring payment for low-income owners until they sell their property. On Wednesday, he tweaked his plan again by lowering the amount the fee would collect and saying he'd support pairing it with a small increase in the property tax rate. But those concessions still aren't enough to salvage a fundamentally flawed approach.
The fire fee is regressive in two ways. First, it relies on a flat fee (which Foster set at $50 Wednesday) charged on every city parcel regardless of its value or the owner's ability to pay. The second, prorated part of the fee would be based on the assessed value of the property's buildings (21 cents per $1,000 in value) — but with an assessment cap of $10 million per parcel. That means another break to those who own the city's most valuable properties. The $115 million Tyrone Square Mall, for example, would pay the same fire fee as the $13 million downtown affordable apartment building Arlington Arbor, despite being worth nearly 10 times more.
It would be fairer to simply raise the city's property tax rate by a reasonable amount. And it makes sense, given that most property owners have seen their tax bill shrink in recent years due to a drop in property values. For the most part, the only property owners paying higher taxes are those longtime homeowners who still benefit from Save Our Homes (and therefore have been paying far less property taxes for city services for years compared with their neighbors).
Raising the millage rate that generates revenue that flows into the city's general fund would also be smarter government. Financial silos in the city budget reduce elected officials' discretion, discourage accountability and hand more leverage to one of the city's most politically influential special interests, the firefighters.
Foster has defended the plan — hatched by the Bryant Miller Olive law firm and first passed in the city of Brooksville — as a way to circumvent state lawmakers, whose perpetual tinkering with the state's property tax law has continued to hamstring local governments' ability to collect revenue. But responding to bad ideas with another one that transfers more of government costs onto the poor and middle class is not a solution.
Foster barely got the votes in July to keep the fire fee under consideration. Tonight the council, having learned more about its regressive nature, should just kill it.