This is how low St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster and the City Council appear willing to go to avoid raising the property tax rate for the first time in at least 22 years. They would rather force property owners to pay a fee for fire protection that shifts costs onto low-income homeowners and advantages more affluent property owners. If St. Petersburg needs to raise revenue to avoid painful budget cuts, this is not the equitable way to do it.
The fire fee — which gets its first formal reading Thursday — is not a new idea. Two years ago, the city's legal staff proposed charging each city property owner a flat, per-parcel fee, but Foster opposed it and it went nowhere. Now, after two more years of budget cuts forced by declining property tax collections, the mayor is on board and the fee has been retooled to allegedly make it a fairer way to collect an additional $10 million. It's not the least bit fair.
The scheme tentatively endorsed by the City Council last week in a 5-2 vote would levy a flat fee — possibly $75 — on each parcel in the city not owned by a government entity. On top of that, property owners would pay a second assessment based on the value of improvements to the property. Charges ranging anywhere from 9 cents to 24 cents per $1,000 in value were discussed at last week's council meeting. But the retooled fee is really just window-dressing. In every example offered last week, it's still the flat fee that would generate the lion's share of revenue.
Foster and council members Jim Kennedy and Karl Nurse, among others, argued this is a way to ensure that every property owner — including nonprofits such as churches and hospitals that are exempt from property taxes — contributes to the cost of running the city. And they even tried to hide behind the hypocritical claim that the fee would help mitigate the unfairness of the state's Save Our Homes amendment, which gives longtime homeowners significant property tax breaks over newer homeowners. Apparently they are blind to the notion that the new fee is also grossly unfair.
This fire fee is a regressive tax: Poorer property owners who may pay little or no property taxes — and cannot afford them — would pay roughly the same as those living in far nicer homes. Council member Leslie Curran suggested the city would have some kind of hardship exemption. But council member Wengay Newton, who voted with member Steve Kornell in opposition, was right last week when he called the two-tier change nothing more than "putting lipstick on a pig."
St. Petersburg is not the first Tampa Bay community to buy into this gimmick. Bryant Miller Olive — the law firm hired by the city to advise on the fee — has also been counsel to Brooksville in Hernando County, which is just one vote away from being the first in the state to adopt this two-tiered fee scheme. Also of interest: Mike Davis, the former St. Petersburg city attorney who proposed the fire fee two years ago, now works at the law firm, though a different lawyer is handling St. Petersburg's work.
St. Petersburg leaders have a strong case that after five years of budget cuts and with property tax revenue dropping by a third over that period, it's time to raise the city's property tax rate. But instead of directly taking on antitax forces, they're concocting an overly complex scheme that will cloud accountability in government spending and hit the city's poorest homeowners the hardest. That's not good government or strong leadership.