St. Petersburg moves forward with fire fee

Published June 15, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — To make up for a projected $8 million budget shortfall, property owners soon could pay a new fee for fire services.

After discussing alternatives, including raising property taxes and dipping into reserves, City Council voted 5-2 to move forward with charging residents an annual fee that would raise about $10 million a year.

That money would be used to pay for equipment, personnel and other costs associated with firefighting that are usually covered by property taxes.

St. Petersburg has gone at least 22 years without raising the tax rate, which dropped from $9.25 per $1,000 of taxable value in 1990 to its current rate of $5.9125.

Since 2007, property tax revenue has fallen $100 million. The city has handled the shortfall mostly with cuts, fee increases and fines.

City leaders say more than 220 jobs have been lost and hours for pools, parks and libraries have been cut. They doubled parking meter rates and started a program to fine those who run red lights.

But now the council says the city should raise revenue through the fire fee.

In a two-tiered approach, property owners would be charged a flat fee of $75 for each lot and 24 cents per $1,000 of the lot's appraised structural value.

For example, the owner of an undeveloped lot would pay just the $75 flat fee. A resident whose home is worth $100,000 would pay $99 a year. The owner of a building valued at $300,000 would pay $147.

Excluding government buildings, all of the city's 100,000 parcels would be charged the fee, including nonprofits and churches.

City residents already pay a tax that finances emergency medical services performed by the fire department. That tax is assessed countywide and amounts to about 58 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property. The proposed fee would pay only for firefighting, not medical treatment.

Council member Charlie Gerdes was absent from Thursday's meeting. Steve Kornell and Wengay Newton voted against the fee.

The city should cover the revenue losses, Newton said, by using its $47 million "rainy day" reserves.

"This is the perfect time to use this one-time money to get over this one-time problem," he said.

However, after a few years of dipping into those funds, said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, the city wouldn't have any reserves left.

The fire fee offsets the inequities of the Save Our Homes homestead exemption, said council member Jim Kennedy, because residents who have owned property for a long time pay less than new residents for the same city services.

Newton said the fire fee is an unfair way to get around the homestead exemption.

If people wanted residents to pay the same taxes regardless of when they bought their property, he said, they could overturn the homestead exemption.

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Within a week, the city will put a searchable database on its website that lets residents plug in any address and see how much that property would be charged.