A new Spring Hill Fire Commission correctly declined to balance the department's budget on the backs of people who can least afford it. Last week, the board unanimously killed the idea of a new minimum fire assessment, intended to capture payments from the 2,600 property owners in the district who pay no ad valorem taxes. Had the commission allowed the staff to research and write the resolution authorizing the assessment, it would have meant new fees regardless of a lot's assessed value or exemption status.
The biggest impact would have been felt by the owners of the most modest residential property in the district — homes with assessed values of $25,000 or less.
Fire Chief Mike Rampino said the impetus for the proposed assessment came from members of the public questioning non-contributors. But such thinking wrongly portrays the neediest homeowners and seniors on fixed incomes as free-loaders soaking up extravagant public services on a whim. This isn't tax fairness, it's tax fallacy.
Rampino characterized the assessment as a base rate that would require everyone to contribute to the public safety costs in the district. The example he used was a minimum $100 assessment, the same property tax paid to the district by the owner of a home with a taxable value of $40,000. Rampino's motives are understandable. He has the difficult challenge of commanding the department amid tight finances, but this idea was misguided.
Commissioners wisely saw the proposal for what it was — a cash grab from some of the neediest residents. Commissioners Sherry Adler and Ken Fagan, serving at their first meeting after their Nov. 2 election, led the objections while Chairman Rob Giammarco simultaneously questioned the legality of an assessment aimed at a narrow audience of 2,600. Their scrutiny is warranted.
Financing essential public services amid three consecutive years of declining property values and voter-approved property exemptions is the dilemma confronting the fire district and local governments everywhere. In Spring Hill, however, the district is handicapped by its property tax cap of 2.5 mills ($2.50 per $1,000 of assessed value) and a genuine public distrust of its budgeting capabilities.
Past commissions were slow to embrace shared services with other public safety agencies, made an unsuccessful attempt at assessing a new tangible property tax on businesses, and then watched voters defeat a referendum to give the district the legal authority to assess and collect taxes to operate the fire department. For the time being, that task still remains under the domain of the Hernando County Commission.
A greater task awaits Rampino and the fire commissioners. They must ensure adequate public safety service for the 90,000 residents in Spring Hill while trimming expenses in the $15 million budget. Only after the district demonstrates sustained fiscal prudence should the commission consider asking the public to increase its contribution for fire protection.