The Brooksville City Council gets another chance this evening to extinguish a regressive fire protection fee and to pay for public safety through a more equitable property tax rate increase. The council should seize the opportunity.
The council is scheduled to consider several options for balancing its proposed budget and financing its Fire Department operations including a two-tired fire fee that charges every lot owner $106 and an additional 76 cents of tax per $1,000 of the taxable value of the structure on the land.
The fee is problematic. It unfairly provide a break to commercial interests and owners of more valuable lots while forcing all property owners to pay regardless of their lot's size, zoning or use. It unjustly shifts the tax burden to the owners of the most modest houses in the city, regardless of their ability to pay.
If the council adopts the full fee (intended to raise $600,000 annually), it also is expected to set the city property tax rate for the entire general fund budget at just under $6.59 per $1,000. Instead, the council should zero out the fee and adopt a property tax rate of $7.50 per $1,000 to pay for public safety and all city government operations in the general fund.
The council shouldn't shy away from this nearly 14 percent tax rate increase because it simply returns the millage to where it stood seven years ago. This is a bare-bones general fund budget that includes no capital investments, no raises and a workforce that is down 35 percent (30 people) since 2006. It mirrors the multiyear decline of the city's tax rolls that have plunged more than $100 million or 28 percent.
In other words, even with a 14 percent tax rate increase, typical property owners still will be paying less in city taxes in the coming year than they did in 2006 because of declining real estate values.
However, increasing costs in the budget include the retirement plan contributions for public safety workers. The obligation for the Fire Department is $240,000 and City Manager Jenenne Norman-Vacha recommended the council set aside $50,000 in the coming year for future contributions for retiring police officers.
Scrapping the fire fee for a more equitable property tax system should be just the first order of business for the council. Figuring out if Brooksville can account for the long-term solvency of its public safety departments — and the willingness of taxpayers to pay for those city services — is a much broader issues that must be addressed in the near future.