The New Port Richey City Council should be cautious as it investigates new ways to pay for fire service and street lights.
The council, historically resistant to increasing the tax rate, is scheduled to begin discussions Dec. 3 on assessing fees for services paid out of its general fund. A final decision is not expected until next summer.
The street-lighting bill is about $200,000 annually, and the city Fire Department budget is $1.9-million. The fees, if adopted, would cover only firefighting duties, not ambulance calls. The city has not yet determined how much that would be.
While doing its calculations, the council needs to think about its philosophy of trying to capture revenue from tax-exempt property and owners of lowered-value homes. The council's previous approval of new fees for stormwater runoff was more palatable because it was intended to help meet anticipated new regulatory requirements from the state.
That is not the case with the Fire Department and street lights. Now, the intent is to develop dedicated revenue sources for existing services, while also obtaining money from current nonpayers.
Pasco Property Appraiser records indicate about 13 percent of the property _ or almost $67-million worth _ is tax exempt because it is owned by the government or nonprofit agencies. Additionally, 197 homesteaded parcels are appraised at less than $25,000, and pay no property taxes. Hardly sizable numbers, considering the city's net taxable value for 2002 is more than $432-million.
Nor is the city facing a cash crunch or closing in on the constitutional tax limit. Its property tax rate of $6.25 per $1,000 is second lowest among the four Pasco cities operating their own fire departments.
One of the temptations for the council will be to assess the fees and assign a corresponding reduction in the property tax rate. That would be ill-advised.
A tax cut will give the greatest benefit to the owners of the most expensive property, commercial buildings and the riverside residences, while simultaneously shifting a financial burden to those who can least afford it _ charities, senior citizens, working poor, and other owners of inexpensive housing.
Put another way, it takes from the poor and gives to the rich.
Pasco County considered a similar fire-fee plan early this year. It exempted other governments and then nonprofit agencies, but eventually made the correct decision and bagged the idea on a 3-2 vote only after the detrimental effect on businesses became more clear.
New Port Richey could be headed in the same direction. Trying to deal with escalating costs of government service is understandable. But for years New Port Richey Council members ignored their city manager and relied on reserves to balance their budget instead of setting more realistic tax rates.
The reserves are now exhausted, but the current council is continuing the antitax tradition of its predecessors. The answer isn't a fee that disproportionately burdens the poor.
Property taxes are one of the few revenue sources to have the progressive feature of asking people of greater means to contribute more to their government. It's a better measure of tax fairness than asking everyone, regardless of means, to pay for essential government services.