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Fire tax cap could go before voters twice

The commissioners themselves couldn't help but notice the irony in their tax debate Wednesday night.

"This is a fascinating discussion where two members of the community are asking us for a larger increase," said Irene Rausch, chairwoman of the Palm Harbor Fire Commission.

After a lively debate on capping fire district taxes, commissioners were ready to vote. They opted to ask for an increase of one-third over the present 1.5-mill limit, bringing it up to 2 mills, or $2 per $1,000 of taxable property.

Two residents at the meeting urged the commissioners to do more.

Ron Gibson, who is running for the only contested seat on the board, said voters would support a 2.5-mill rate if they simply understood what the cap meant.

"They need to know you won't be jamming it down their throats," Gibson said. "It's a cap. You won't be asking for every dollar."

Bob Backlund, a regular at fire commission meetings, said the two-step plan would confuse voters.

"I have always been an anti-millage-increase person," he said, "but I think we ought to go for the increase to 2.5. You should not tie your hands by putting on a time element or year. If we can't convince the citizens we need another mill to run this department, maybe we ought to do away with the district."

Commissioners emphasize the cap governs the rate they can charge, and not necessarily the rate they will charge. Fire Chief Thomas Jarrell predicted in a report to the board that the rate by 2000 would be about $1.97 per $1,000 of taxable property.

The district's limit of $1.50 has been in place since it first adopted a tax in 1986. But the district never levied the full $1.50 until the fiscal year that began this month.

Fire officials have said revenues from this rate aren't enough to sustain service for the growing district of 60,000, and commissioners recently decided that they have no choice but to seek a higher ceiling. Most other fire districts in the county have a 5-mill limit, Jarrell's report said.

The Palm Harbor district's framework requires that voters approve the cap in a referendum, which likely would be held in 1996.

Commissioners on Wednesday night considered raising the limit by two-thirds, from the present 1.5-mill limit to 2.5 mills, or $2.50 per $1,000 of taxable property.

But, fearing voters would turn back such a steep increase, the board endorsed a two-step plan. The cap would remain at 2 mills until 2000, when the voters would consider an additional hike that would push the limit up to 2.5.

"My preference is 2.5," commissioner Norman Atherton said. "But I don't want to jeopardize closing a station if it doesn't pass. We'll have a heck of a time convincing the voters to go with 2.5."

The commission will present its proposal to the Pinellas County legislative delegation next month. If local lawmakers endorse the plan, then the Legislature will take it up next year, and then it would go to Palm Harbor voters.

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