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Dade City's proposal puts burden on its poor

Dade City is pursuing a new way to finance essential government services that will reward the owners of the city's most valuable property while penalizing charities, schools, churches and its poorest homeowners.

It is an unfair shift of the tax burden under the guise of establishing dedicated funding sources for the city's fire department and street lights.

It's not a new tactic. Pasco County attempted a similar maneuver last year, but commissioners eventually killed the idea on a 3-2 vote. New Port Richey, meanwhile, is drafting a plan similar to Dade City's. It, too, should rethink its plan.

The quest for more operating revenue is understandable. Dade City takes in less than $1.3-million in property taxes, but spends more than twice that amount on public safety. Additionally, the city's well-equipped fire department is losing a portion of its coverage area Oct. 1 when Pasco County assumes responsibility for protecting the municipal service district outside the city limits. With the changeover comes a loss of several hundred thousand dollars annually to the city.

But the avenue Dade City is choosing is flawed. The city wants to assess each property owner a fee, regardless of the parcel's tax status, to pay for its fire department. A separate fee is planned for street lights and a third for stormwater drainage. The stormwater fee is more palatable because it is intended to help meet expected changes in state guidelines, rather than financing existing services.

Under the fire service plan, homeowners would pay a to-be-determined annual fee, the size of which could range from $55 to $219. That means the owners of the city's poorest dwellings _ the 141 owner-occupied homes valued at an average of less than $18,000 contributing no property taxes _ will pay the same for fire protection as the owner of a $200,000 home.

In exchange, the City Commission is touting a roughly 50 percent cut in its current property tax rate of $7.40 per $1,000. And they call this fair? What is so equitable about owners of the most expensive homes and commercial buildings getting a reduction in their property tax bill at the expense of those who can least afford it _ charities, senior citizens, working poor, and other owners of inexpensive housing? Put another way, the city wants to take from the poor and give to the rich.

The 243 tax-exempt parcels owned by churches, schools, county government and nonprofit organizations will pay a fee based on the size of their buildings. Taking fees from nonprofit charities just reduces the amount of money those agencies have to spend serving clients. The city points to its role as Pasco County seat and the preponderance of government-owned property as justification.

That is unfortunate, considering the city helped create this situation by removing private property from the tax rolls. The commission eagerly cobbled together privately owned lots several years ago as an enticement for Pasco County to keep a new administration building downtown. In addition, the city recently purchased the former TECO building adjacent to City Hall but now lacks the money to do anything with the structure besides renting out a portion to a couple of tenants.

The push for a property tax cut is curious. The city's tax rate has changed just three times during the past decade. Each time the commission reduced the millage which is lower now than it was 12 years ago.

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.