Pasco Commissioner Pat Mulieri is trying to rekindle an idea that already flamed out twice. Mulieri wants an end run around property taxes by pushing a share of firefighting costs onto the owners of the most modest homes in the county, nonprofit groups, churches and perhaps even on people who own vacant lots by charging a new fire assessment. In turn, the county would lower the property tax rate charged in its fire district that covers about 90 percent of the county's population.
It is a misguided idea that unfairly pushes a greater share of the financial burden for public safety on the disabled, the poor, seniors and charities.
It also is an old proposal, only this time it has a different commissioner leading the charge. Mulieri joined a 3-2 majority in 2002 to defeat a similar $40-per-house fee that also included a larger charge to commercial properties. Last spring, then-Commissioner Michael Cox resurrected the idea, but his November election defeat doused future discussions until Mulieri broached the topic again five days ago.
Sadly, a commission majority endorsed the concept and scheduled a future workshop to hash out the details in time to start charging the fee, perhaps as much as $50 a parcel, on Oct. 1, 2012 — five weeks before the next commission election. Public hearings and a formal vote would still be required prior to final adoption.
Owners of nearly 6,000 parcels pay no property taxes in Pasco County because of exemptions or their tax status. Almost 3,500 are homesteaded properties and the rest are churches and buildings owned by nonprofit agencies like veterans groups and charities.
Likewise, more than 47,000 homesteaded properties had assessed values of $75,000 or less. That means those homes in the unincorporated portions of the county contribute a maximum of $35.67 in property taxes for fire protection this year.
Mulieri wants them to fork over more. Tacking on a new $50 fee could generate as much as $11.5 million for the fire department. But don't start spending it yet because this isn't about firefighting expenses exclusively. By charging the fee, the county would reduce its fire tax, which currently is $1.43 per $1,000 of property value.
This is nothing but a cost shift. A flat per-parcel assessment dumps more costs on the neediest homeowners while granting a larger tax break to owners of the most valuable property.
Commissioners don't need a gimmick to fix the fire department's finances. They have the ability to address the department's budget each year when they set the property tax rate. That is what they did in 2010 when they decided to increase the fire district tax rate to hire 15 additional firefighters while paying for mandatory increases in health insurance and pensions.
The fire assessment plan also fails to acknowledge that nearly 90 percent of the emergency calls are for an ambulance, not fire suppression, and that the commission already approved higher fees for ambulance trips. Rationalizing another new fee by suggesting the owner of a dirt lot benefits by protection from a brush fire is ridiculous.
It is understood the fire department is in tough financial straits. The county has four fire stations without ambulances and the department gave up 42 positions, including 33 firefighters and four inspectors, over a three-year period before adding the 15 firefighters this year. With the county expecting yet another budget deficit, Chief Anthony Lopinto warned commissioners that any further cuts would translate to layoffs.
Since the commission already missed a deadline to add the assessment by Oct. 1, 2011, it will need to address firefighting revenues exclusively with property taxes in the coming budget year. That's the way it should be. Property taxes are a better measure of tax fairness than asking people, regardless of their ability to pay, to pony up more for essential government services.
Commissioners said they wanted the workshop to answer their questions before authoring a more detailed plan. The first question they should ask is this:
Why are we bothering with this bad idea yet again?