Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Editorials

Proposed fire fee sticks it to the little guy

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster is playing trickle-down economics with the city budget, and the losers are low-income and middle-class property owners. A proposed fire fee is actually a big tax break for big businesses and wealthy homeowners that shifts city costs onto the backs of less affluent property owners who can least afford it. City Council members who claim to represent working families and small business owners ought to reconsider.

Instead of raising property tax rates to cover a projected $10 million deficit, Foster and most City Council members have embraced a $75 flat fee for fire protection for each property, plus 23 cents per $1,000 of each lot's appraised structural value. The mayor mischaracterizes this as a fair system that spreads the burden, but in reality it is a regressive tax pushed by a well-connected law firm with strong ties to City Hall.

Do the math. As the Tampa Bay Times' Mark Puente reports, the owners of the 20 most expensive properties in the city would pay a total of about $46,000 for the fire fee. A property tax rate increase of 1 mill would cost those properties $605,000. For example, Tyrone Square Mall's owner would pay a fire fee of $2,375 instead of a property tax increase of $115,500. Progress Energy would pay a fire fee on its downtown headquarters of $2,375 instead of a property tax increase of $23,000. Yet a property owner with a home valued at $96,770 would be getting virtually no break from paying the fire fee ($92.22) instead of a property tax increase ($96.77).

In other eras, St. Petersburg was all about improving downtown property values to take some of the burden off homeowners. Now Foster argues that businesses pay too much in taxes and that tax savings would create jobs. This is even worse than the tax-breaks-for-jobs mantra in the Legislature, because poor and middle-class St. Petersburg homeowners would be directly paying for the tax breaks for the mall and the electric company. Good luck explaining that to voters in Midtown or Pinellas Point or Kenwood or Crescent Lake or …

Of course, Foster is not one to look out for the little guy. He would rather install more parking meters, put up traffic cameras and increase fees for city services to raise revenue than fairly spread the pain by raising property taxes. He pushed to cut Progress Energy a break on $147,000 in taxes and fees it owed the city, and he showed little interest in investigating why hotel developers got a big break on impact fees under a previous administration. The fire fee is just one step away from the Romans who rushed to a fire but refused to put it out unless the owner agreed to pay a price negotiated on the spot. Foster already has set his initial price: $75, and then some.

City Council members Charlie Gerdes, Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton see through this shameless tax shift and oppose it. Public hearings on the city's proposed budget are set for Sept. 13 and 27. Perhaps by then, council members Leslie Curran, Jeff Danner, Bill Dudley, Jim Kennedy and Karl Nurse will be more interested in standing up for their middle-class constituents than for Foster's big business pals and affluent homeowners.

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