Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Proposed Hernando fire services sales tax an untimely, bad idea

The gimmickry surrounding fire department funding is about to get worse. Hernando commissioners are considering a plan to charge a new sales tax as a trade-off for a financial break for property owners.

The idea is still in its infancy, and voter approval would be needed before the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase could begin. Regardless, the commission should drop this misguided plan. It's a regressive tax that will push a greater share of current government costs onto people who can least afford it while simultaneously cutting the property taxes and/or assessments intended to finance the soon-to-be consolidated county and Spring Hill fire departments. Just as importantly, a county push for a new sales tax in a 2014 referendum could undermine the Hernando School District, which may seek to extend its own half-cent sales tax at the same time.

"There does seem to be a lack of coordination between what the county does and the school district does,'' said school superintendent Bryan Blavatt. "It's almost a situation where you are competitive rather than looking at the well-being of the county as a whole.''

It also is worth nothing that, in 2004, the last time the public considered simultaneous sales tax proposals, voters supported the school district plan, but rejected the county tax.

No other county in Florida uses this so-called Emergency Fire Rescue Services and Facilities Surtax, which was authorized by the Legislature in 2009 and includes the provision mandating the tax swap.

This would be less disagreeable if the sales tax were earmarked for expensive, unfunded capital projects like new fire stations, trucks or ambulances, but it is not. The tax will cover existing personnel expenses and is nothing more than a cost-savings to the owners of the most valuable properties in the county. The plan surfaced last week as the county searched for ways to pay for the combined fire departments in advance of a possible public push-back against property taxes and assessments.

Commissioners have called a previous fire financing plan too confusing. It called for a flat fee of $123.53 per home (with a separate commercial assessment based on square footage) and a fire/ambulance tax of $1.75 per $1,000 of assessed value. Adding a sales tax certainly won't simplify things. A 1-cent sales tax is projected to raise approximately $15 million annually or less than half of the current Spring Hill and Hernando County fire rescue budgets totaling $35 million.

These convoluted proposals cloud transparency and unfairly burden people of lesser means with a disproportionate share of public safety costs. Still, that didn't stop supportive comments from some commissioners.

Tax "swaps can be a good thing,'' said Commissioner David Russell.

"It sounds really good on the surface, but we'd have to sell this because I don't know if this will go down'' with the voters, said Commissioner Wayne Dukes.

Dukes is right about the political implications of a tax referendum, which makes the reluctance to use a simple property tax even more puzzling. Commissioners should skip the contrived schemes, use a straightforward property tax for its firefighting and rescue services and leave possible tax referendums for more pressing purposes.

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