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Schools objecting to user fees

Increasing user fees instead of raising taxes may make little difference to citizens. They pay, one way or another.

But for schools, the difference is huge _ and expensive. St. Petersburg Junior College and the Pinellas County school system are exempt from property taxes. But with increased fees, including a stormwater management fee, schools say they are indirectly paying taxes that they should be exempt from.

Next week, the School Board will vote on joining SPJC to sue the city of St. Petersburg over the stormwater management fee.

"The issue has so much potential for us," schools Superintendent Howard Hinesley said. "We have to begin to look for a solution."

Hinesley said the school system pays $200,000 to St. Petersburg for stormwater management. SPJC administrator Mike Richardson said his school pays the city $25,000.

"We got the bill cold turkey," Richardson said of the stormwater fee that became law in 1990. "We said to the School Board, "Let's pursue this together.' This raises tough legal questions."

The school system and SPJC paid a certified public accountant, W. Richard Johnston, to examine the issue last January.

In his report, Johnston wrote: "State funds intended for education are going to municipalities to support activities formerly supported by (property) taxes and special assessments from which the School Board and junior college are exempt."

Hinesely said the school system soon could be paying a total of $1-million to several cities. Plus, there's the potential for more fees besides stormwater management.

"Municipalities," Johnston wrote, "are seeking ways to get around the School Board and college exemption from (property) taxes.

.

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. This question may apply to other fees (sewer and water, sanitation, etc.)."

Hinesley said those potential "other fees" are frightening.

Hinesley and Richardson said they spoke with city officials about three weeks ago and are waiting to hear back from them. Those officials were not available late Thursday for comment.

"We're cautiously optimistic something can be worked out," Hinesley said. "But we might need to clarify it through the courts."

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