Pasco Commissioner Michael Cox is trying to reignite a fire financing plan a past board majority rightfully doused eight years ago.
Cox, reluctant to advocate an election-year property tax increase, said Tuesday the county should consider a new special assessment for its fire department now financed via a separate property tax. Cox suggested such an assessment would be revenue neutral, meaning it would be accompanied by a reduction in the current fire tax rate of $1.11 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.
Cox should call this a false alarm. It is a misguided idea that unfairly pushes a greater share of the financial burden for public safety to people living in moderately valued homes.
In addition, it fails to address how to properly fund a fire department that now has 40 vacancies and also does not acknowledge that nearly nine of every 10 calls to the department are for an ambulance — a service mostly financed via the county's general fund and user fees.
There are 48,461 homesteaded properties in Pasco County with assessed values of $75,000 or less and those in the unincorporated portions of the county contribute a maximum of just under $30 annually in property taxes for fire protection. Any flat per-house assessment dumps more costs on these homeowners while granting a larger tax break to owners of the most valuable property in the county.
A revenue-neutral assessment won't aid the county's bottom line or help with the fire department's personnel shortage. It simply shifts the costs to the county's poorest homeowners.
(The convoluted plan of 2002 died on a 3-2 vote after business owners complained the per-foot assessment raised their obligations substantially. Remaining from that board are Commissioner Ted Schrader, who advocated the assessment, and Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand who opposed it.)
The county has the ability to address its fire department funding if it chooses to do so. A commission majority can decide to charge the rollback rate — the tax rate needed to raise the same amount of money as the 2010 budget — in the new fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and a super-majority of four commissioners can vote to set a tax rate even higher. It's worth noting that seven years ago, the fire tax rate was nearly 75 percent higher than it is today.
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 people, regardless of their ability to pay, to pony up more for essential government services.
The county doesn't need a new gimmick to pay for public safety. It needs to consider its fire department's personnel and capital costs and decide if its current tax rate is sufficient to support the demands for service in 2011.