Pinellas Suncoast fire district wants to raise assessments

Many families and businesses would pay $100 more a year
Plans for the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District  referendum March 12 call for a $100 increase in the annual assessment for single-family units. [Photo by Tom Germond]
Plans for the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District referendum March 12 call for a $100 increase in the annual assessment for single-family units. [Photo by Tom Germond]
Published January 14

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — The Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District wants to raise annual assessments through a proposed ballot measure intended to get operations on a sound financial footing.

A referendum is planned for March 12 that seeks voter approval to authorize the district to raise its annual assessments by $100 for single-family units and certain other categories of property.

Fire Chief Michael Burton sounded the alert again at a recent district commission meeting about diminishing reserves in the budget in recent years.

He said that in fiscal year 2018-2019, district reserves decreased by $249,000. For fiscal year 2019-2020 reserves are expected to be decreased by at least $250,000 without service cuts or more revenue raised.

“The more concerning news is barring an increase in revenue or a significant reduction in service levels, the spending down of reserves will place the district in an untenable financial situation no later than 2024,” Burton said.

He noted that much of the information he provided to the commission had been discussed numerous times.

“What’s before you tonight is the result of a community-based effort, a stakeholder task force. We held 11 public meetings and came to agreement on a language you are about to consider tonight,” Burton said.

The task force looked at property tax comparisons for all the fire districts, EMS funding, impact fees, the breakdown of all the district’s property types, the 2020 Penny for Pinellas funding, the assessment of commercial properties, motel-hotel assessments, the statutory exemptions from property taxes and an EMS settlement agreement with Pinellas County, Burton said.

If voters approve the ballot measure, beginning in fiscal year 2019-2020, the annual assessment for single-family residential units would increase from $260 to $360; commercial units up to 500 square feet from $286 to $386; motel units, mobile home lots and recreational vehicle lots from $165 to $265, with all other categories to be unchanged.

Only a few residents spoke at the meeting at City Hall, including Kelly Cisarik, a member of task force that studied ways to address the district’s financial woes.

Cisarik expressed concerns about the proposed ballot language, saying much of the text describes the commercial categories and doesn’t convey any sense of urgency or the reason the district is seeking a resolution.

“Obviously, that can be conveyed through public outreach, but that would be my concern. I hope that this can be made clear to the voter,” she said.

The referendum would be the second in recent years pertaining to district finances. A November 2016 referendum, which was approved by voters, granted the district the ability to levy a new property tax.

A circuit court judge found in September 2017 that the wording of the referendum was misleading and not valid. The fire district board decided not to appeal the judge’s ruling.

The task force began meeting in April. At its Aug. 16 meeting, members recommended that a $100 increase in annual assessments be imposed on homeowners and businesses within the district.

The district serves Belleair Shore, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and, roughly, an area on the mainland just to the north of Park Boulevard and south of Walsingham Road. It is bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway on the west and 131st Street on the east.