INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Voters in the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District will likely be asked next March whether they want to pay more to maintain the same level of service.
A task force recommended this month that a $100 increase in annual assessments be imposed on homeowners and businesses , a figure designed to keep the district operating without having to cut service or lay off any employees.
That resolution will now have to be approved by the fire district board and then, if approved, go to a referendum in the March election.
Much of the discussion at the meeting this month centered on how many hotel/motel rooms were in the district and how increases would be handled.
It was decided that motels, which currently pay $165 a year per room, will pay the additional $100, or $265 a year per room.
Residences, including apartments, condos and time shares, will see their annual assessment go from $260 to $360.
Businesses that currently pay a base rate of $286 annually will have to pay $386. Any charges currently outside the base rate will not be affected.
Chief Mike Burton said the important topic now is to get the wording on the referendum clear and simple.
"The challenge is to get the language that is not confusing to voters," he said. "You want very, very clear ballot language."
The fire district had previously tried to tie funding to property taxes, but the courts deemed the wording in that referendum confusing and struck down the request. That decision was made after a lawsuit brought by Indian Rocks Beach Commissioner Ed Hoofnagle. Burton said he doesn’t want that to happen again.
Katrena Hale, who owns a motel property in Indian Shores, said the increase should not put too much of a burden on businesses such as hers.
"Do I want to pay an additional $700 a year? No, but that is what I will have to do," she said. "That is not all that horrible."
If the fire board rejects the task force’s recommendation it could be back to the drawing board. If it accepts the recommendation, then task force members will be asked to assist in educating the residents on the referendum question.
"If the commission approves our recommendation then there will have to be a seven or eight-month education program," Burton said. "Once the decision is made a lot of heavy lifting is going to have to be done by a lot of people."
The fire district provides service to the communities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and the Oakhurst area on the mainland.
Throughout the process the question of what will happen if the referendum is rejected by the voters has been raised. Burton didn’t pull any punches in his closing remarks at the meeting.
"In our upcoming budget we are facing a deficit of $355,000," he said. "We cannot go on with deficit spending; I’m quite concerned with what is going on."
"We will be left with no choice but do selective reductions; that is not an idle threat. We will have to reduce service and perhaps close a station or have selective brown-outs, where a station is not staffed from time to time,’’ he said. "In my four decades in this business I have never had to do that."
The fire district’s budget will be presented to the Board of Commissioners on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Indian Shores Town Hall. It hasn’t been decided when the task force resolution regarding the $100 increase will be presented to the board.