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The proposed fire fee shows great inequity

The commercial land beneath the Walmart Supercenter on Broad Street in Brooksville is worth $3.6 million, according to the Hernando Property Appraiser. Meanwhile, the residential lot under a modest single-family home on Florida Avenue is valued at less than 10 grand.

Despite the disparity, the owners of each are expected to pay the same $106 for a "readiness to serve'' fire fee under consideration by the Brooksville City Council.

Ridiculous? Absolutely. The per-parcel fee, regardless of a lot's size, zoning or use, is part of a two-tiered assessment system proposed to finance the city fire department. (The second portion of the fee is more equitable because it charges a tax of 78 cents per $1,000 for the taxable value of a structure.)

Regardless, this proposal is flawed despite the city's repeated attempts in the past two years to try to devise a way to pay for its public safety services absent a property tax increase. This plan is an improvement over earlier versions, but it still should be abandoned.

Council rationalizes the ploy as a way to ensure that everybody pays for a share of the fire services. Instead, it is unfair to the average homeowners, but a huge boon to commercial interests and owners of valuable lots. A per-lot fee, regardless of assessed value, provides a huge break for the Walmarts of the world when compared with traditional ad valorem taxes that produce larger tax bills for properties with higher values.

Essentially, the Brooksville fire fee system values every lot in the city at $16,640. Such an assessment would produce $106 per lot for the fire department under the current property tax rate of 6.37 mills.

Walmart's current tax bill illustrates the inequity of the plan. The retailer paid $61,475 in city taxes on its building and land valued at $9.6 million. Under the proposed fire assessment, Walmart would pay $106 on land valued at $3.6 million; and $4,644 for a building valued at nearly $6 million. That means more than a third of Walmart's property value all but escapes assessment.

Meanwhile, the homeowner on Florida Avenue is being asked to pay $126 in new fire fees on a $35,000 house and lot. Her entire municipal tax bill last year was less than $67.

Is it fair to triple that property owner's tax obligation to the city while Walmart sees its municipal taxes go up just 7.7 percent?

The two-tiered fee also fails to account for the tax status of the owners. Under this plan, some charities and nonprofit agencies like Jericho Road Ministries, the Brooksville Housing Authority, and the Hernando School District would have to pony up. That is less money for aiding the needy, housing the poor and educating children.

The city has 4,261 real estate parcels of which 146 are owner-occupied single-family homes that pay no property taxes because they are valued at less than the $25,000 homestead exemption. Additionally, there are 306 parcels owned by governments, nonprofits or other tax-exempt entities, some of which will pay assessments under the new plan.

It's little more than an attempt to squeeze money from people and groups who can least afford it while Council can tout itself as holding the line on property taxes or, perhaps even lowering the millage. That was a key motivation two years ago under a different fire fee plan scuttled by complaints from the business sector.

This proposed fire fee is an untested financial gimmick that reaches into every pocket, regardless of an owner's ability to pay, while simultaneously cutting a break to large landowners. Council shouldn't promote inequity and will better serve the public by setting an appropriate property tax rate to ensure the city's public safety needs are met.

The proposed fire fee shows great inequity 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 11:11am]
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