Mayor Bill Foster and the St. Petersburg City Council have repeatedly said this year that cutting services alone to balance the budget will not work. A balanced budget, Foster said, must be met with cuts and increased revenue.
By a 4-3 vote, the St. Petersburg City Council on May 3 directed city attorney John Wolfe to explore setting up a basic fire assessment fee for St. Petersburg. That initial exploration could cost the city up to $60,000, Wolfe said.
The fire assessment, or readiness fee, would provide the city a new revenue source without raising the millage rate. The fee could also be assessed to people not currently on the property tax roll.
“You must include non-taxable parcels and those owned by not-for-profits, because no matter what, I believe everyone should pay something,” Foster said.
The Council asked Wolfe to explore a flat fee for the readiness fee instead of a sliding or scaled fee that would base payment on square footage or size of lot.
“The benefit of this is (approach). You can pull all of your information from the tax assessor's rolls,” Wolfe said. “You don’t have to go out and examine each building and see what their risk is or what their demand might be.”
Council member Jeff Danner agreed. He said larger properties already pay a disproportionate amount of the city’s property taxes.
The fact that Walmart and a single-family home a block away could pay the same readiness fee did not sit well with council member Karl Nurse.
“We already have the greatest income inequality in our nation’s history,” Nurse said. “I don’t think we should reinforce that.”
At the heart of the disagreement with the fire readiness fee is the idea of a new fee versus just raising the millage. Council member Wengay Newton questioned the difference between the public paying $6 million in ad valorem property taxes and $6 million in fire assessment fees.
"$6 million is $6 million," he said.
“When it is a fire assessment fee, people know where the money is going,” Wolfe said. “When you do a tax it can go anywhere.”
Wolfe said 40-70 percent of the city’s fire budget could be paid for with fire readiness fees that are collected. He said staff believed it would be much closer to 70 percent.
Council member Jim Kennedy said closing the gap with millage only “will have a chilling effect on the real estate market. If we put everything on the millage rate, it will have a negative effect on people buying property in St. Petersburg.”
Unlike a millage rate, a fire readiness fee would not be subject to sways in the economy, Kennedy said. It would be the same every year, something the city could count on.
Foster said the Council’s vote ensures that the fire readiness fee is an option for the city when it sets its fiscal year 2013 budget, which is currently facing a $13 million shortfall.
“It’s all about revenue at this point,” Foster said. “We haven’t stopped looking for budgetary reductions, consolidations, privatizations, health care clinics. Everything you’ve ever suggested and read about, every stone will be turned over.
“We are not going to find $14 million or even half of that to reduce the budget at this point without permanently impairing the great progress of this city,” Foster added. “This action today is not a final action.”
Newton, Nurse and council member Steve Kornell were the three councilors that voted against the city attorney exploring a fire readiness fee.