Pasco County commissioners quickly snuffed the idea of levying fees on property owners to help pay for fire protection and to fill firefighter positions left vacant because of sagging tax revenue.
At a workshop on Tuesday,tossed around the prospect of enacting a fee to pay for the fire rescue agency that currently is paid for with a tax levy. Commissioners cannot vote at a workshop, but they can share opinions.
There is little doubt the county fire agency needs an injection of money, Pasco County Fire Rescue Chief Anthony Lopinto told commissioners.
Overtime pay is gouging the department budget with nearly $80,000 spent in the first month of the budget year because so many positions are vacant, Lopinto said after the meeting.
If the trend continues, the department will burn through its $450,000 overtime budget, and the chief will be forced to cut staffing at stations, reducing a normal engine complement of three firefighters to two for some shifts, he said.
Commissioners reviewed a 10-year-old study of a fire fee done by Government Services Group, a consulting company from Tallahassee.
The 2001 study showed house fires accounted for about 67 percent of fire calls while commercial buildings made up 16 percent, meaning homeowners would generate 67 percent of the fire budget and commercial property produce 16 percent.
That calculation resulted in a fee of $65 per house and a range of $213 to more than $10,000 for commercial buildings based on square footage.
Though the county has grown in 10 years, the numbers would not likely change significantly, Camille Tharpe, senior vice president for the consulting company, told commissioners on Tuesday.
The idea of charging a fee to all property owners had support from Commissioner Pat Mulieri because it would sweep in owners who pay no property tax because of homestead exemptions.
The owners of more than 5,900 parcels in Pasco County pay no property taxes.
“I think it’s a logical way to go. Everybody should pay something,” she said.
Mulieri favored some type of flat charge across the board rather than a sliding fee based on square footage or the type of building.
Tharpe said only Sumter County in Florida charges a flat fire fee for all property owners.
The fee scale outlined in the consultant study could hit commercial property owners hard with an example of one company that now pays about $1,400 in taxes facing more than $8,000 under the fee proposal.
Commissioners would have the option of lowering the millage they now levy for fire protection if a fee was put in place.
Property owners pay $1.42 for every $1,000 of taxable property value.
Other commissioners weren’t in favor of a flat fee.
Commissioner Jack Mariano suggested looking into a small charge similar to a recreation fee to generate roughly $600,000 Lopinto said is needed to fill the 11 vacant positions of his agency’s roughly 400 firefighters.
He also said more money will be needed next budget year to meet rising costs such as health insurance.
County administrator John Gallagher said commissioners face a question on the fire department budget millage each year.
Only a modest boost in the millage would generate $750,000 for the department and cost the owner of a house taxed at $100,000 after exemptions about $5.