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County reviewing fees it charges for services

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners have been loath to even talk about raising taxes of any sort during the economic doldrums.

With things looking up, they plan to at least explore raising user fees for things ranging from charges for an ambulance trip to an annual assessment that goes toward fixing flooding problems.

"I guess the main focus of our budget discussions over the last three years has been primarily on the expenditure side," said County Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners Wednesday, speaking of his efforts to rein in spending. "And we haven't really spent a lot of time talking about revenues."

Commissioners did that Wednesday. While they offered no explicit endorsement of any particular fee hike, they generally expressed willingness to have Merrill and his staff bring back suggestions in several areas.

• Ambulance transports. County Fire-Rescue workers respond to calls from people facing possible life-threatening symptoms. They charge from just more than $400 to about $550 depending on the type of call, even though Medicaid and Medicare and insurers will reimburse for higher charges. Staff is looking at increasing the charge to $900 for people who have insurance, but keeping rates the same for people who don't. The change would likely bring in an additional $3 million.

• New programs in county parks. At the suggestion of Commissioner Victor Crist, the county will explore new offerings at county parks, possibly teaming up with private vendors. That could range from allowing camping to building primitive rental cabins to expanding lands available for horseback riding or building zip-line courses.

Each would come with a charge. Crist said such programs could boost economic development, serving as a tourism draw.

"I'm intrigued by the opportunity to expand on economic development through ecotourism," Crist said. "We have some of the most beautiful natural resources to be found anywhere in the state, if not the country."

Commissioner Les Miller expressed caution about exposing the county to liability by allowing private companies to run risky ventures.

• Stormwater fees. The county charges homeowners $12 a year to raise money for addressing drainage and flooding problems around Hillsborough.

That's less than what other governments charge, according to a county analysis.

Staff will look at what might be an appropriate increase based on needs for drainage work.

Generally, the county will undertake an analysis of fees it charges for a variety of services, and what it actually costs to provide them.

County staff is also working with development trade groups as they explore making adjustments to fees associated with new construction.