Saturday, February 24, 2018
Editorials

Fire fee gimmick is unfair to poorest

Hernando commissioners are considering an unfair financing gimmick for the county fire department that will shift costs from affluent property owners to churches, charities and owners of the most modest-priced housing in Spring Hill.

Paying for public safety is essential, but this is nothing more than a cash grab from some of the area's neediest residents and the churches and non-profits that help provide a social services safety net.

Next month, commissioners are scheduled to vote on a new countywide fire fee to operate the newly merged Hernando and Spring Hill fire departments. The plan calls for a flat fee of $171.44 for each residential property owner for fire protection, plus a separate property tax for ambulance service.

Currently, Hernando County charges a residential fee of just less than $195 for fire service, which has been in place since 1999. Meanwhile, Spring Hill property owners pay a tax of $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. The new formula provides a break for people living on the east side of the county, but the typical residential property owner, previously protected by the Spring Hill Fire Department, will see a substantial price increase.

Here's why: The average taxable value of the nearly 39,000 single-family homes in Spring Hill is $46,557 and, under Spring Hill's current 2.5 millage, they would pay $116.39 for fire protection. That is $55.05 less than the proposed fire fee.

It's even more punitive for Spring Hill property owners claiming homestead exemptions. The average assessed value for a single-family home in Spring Hill is $79,033. Subtract $50,000 worth of homestead exemptions and that homeowner pays $60 for fire protection. The proposed fee will nearly triple their costs. Meanwhile, owners of the most expensive homes will get a break, paying the same $171, regardless of the taxable value of their property.

For the past 10 months, commissioners have been asked to figure out how to pay for the combined fire departments and their $27 million proposed budget. The ideas, including a sales tax increase and hybrid plan of fees and property taxes, are simply ways of ducking the most obvious and fair method of paying for public safety — traditional ad valorem taxes.

Commissioners don't need another unfair fee. And, they certainly shouldn't be encouraging an east versus west parochialism. In a memorandum from the fire department to the commission, staff reported that "it is with pleasure that we proposed the maximum rates to the board with a $23.43 savings to existing (county-protected) residences.'' How much pleasure do you think Spring Hill property owners will receive when they open their assessment notice? Commissioners are elected countywide and they must act in the best interests of all of their constituents, not just the existing bill payers.

The fire fee is a complex and arbitrary scheme based on a contrived theory that everyone should contribute the same for fire protection regardless of their ability to pay. How is that tax fairness? Commissioners should scrap this plan and set a reasonable millage to ensure adequate fire and ambulance services for all of Hernando County.

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