The Spring Hill Fire Rescue district is looking at the wrong pockets for the money to close its budget gap. The district wants to tap out-of-town corporate interests for additional dollars to help cover the cost of providing fire and ambulance service to 95,000 local residents. It is an unfair attempt to push a greater share of public safety expenses to the most infrequent users. Hernando County commissioners should kill this ruse shifting a disproportionate share of the tax burden to an already struggling business community.
The plan, approved by the independent fire commissioners this week, is to adopt a new tangible property tax specifically for fire safety in Spring Hill. A tangible tax, already assessed by Hernando County government and other entities, requires companies to pay an annual surcharge on the light fixtures, cash registers, office furniture and other business-related equipment within their buildings.
The Spring Hill tangible tax would be billed at the same rate as the district's current real estate tax of just less than $2.27 for every $1,000 of property. An exemption for the first $25,000 of tangible property is intended to assist small businesses. The tax is expected to raise up to several hundred thousand dollars annually for the fire district, which has a $15 million budget but is looking at a $1.5 million shortfall for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
Under most circumstances, we would agree that tangible property taxes are a legitimate revenue source for local taxing authorities. But in this instance, the fire commission is trying to assess the new levy without increasing its real estate tax rate. In other words, the district wants only some property owners to share the increased costs. Conveniently for elected fire commissioners, a good number of those would be large businesses, such as Wal-Mart and Target, with corporate offices in far-away locations. Only fire Commissioner Rob Giammarco recognized the uneven tax burden on businesses and voted against the proposal.
National statistics show that nearly 80 percent of all fire/rescue calls are for ambulance service. Those typically are to accident scenes and homes occupied by senior citizens, not chain retail stores and other big businesses, which makes the logic from fire commission Chairman Leo Jacobs hard to swallow.
"Our generosity has come to an end. We need help,'' Jacobs told other fire commissioners.
Generosity toward whom? Nearly flat appraisals and an additional $25,000 exemption included in Amendment 1 already protect homeowners. A more equitable source of help would be an increased real estate tax rate paid by everyone.
This is the first fire district budget prepared since voters, in a November 2008 referendum, authorized independence from county oversight. A second referendum still must go to the voters and, for the time being, Hernando County commissioners retain the ability to quash this tax proposal. They should do so.
The state legislation to make the separation legal included a provision capping the district's tax rate at $2.50 per $1,000 of property value, higher than the status quo tax rate fire commissioners settled upon in their budget proposal. So there is room to obtain revenue from all property owners. The Spring Hill fire district shouldn't be looking to squeeze more money from businesses until it asks residential property owners to kick in the maximum. Voters who approved the independent fire service knew it would come with some expense. Now is the time to foot the bill if they want to demonstrate an ability to self-govern.
State Rep. Rob Schenck. R-Spring Hill, who sponsored the state legislation, said it was not his intent to give the fire district the authority to add a tangible tax as well. Fire commissioners should heed to that intent before a Tallahassee-based remedy is forced on them.