The St. Johns County Board of County Commissioners is considering implementing a Municipal Service Benefit Unit to fund fire services in St. Johns County as previously reported by Historic City News.
All property owners in St. Johns County were sent mailed notices this week identifying the maximum fire rescue assessment for Fiscal Year 2009, which begins October 1, 2008. The notices also announce a Public Information Workshop on Wednesday, July 23, at 7:00 pm and a Public Hearing on Tuesday, August 5, at 9:00 am. Both the Public Information Workshop and the Public Hearing will be in the County Auditorium, located at 4020 Lewis Speedway in St. Augustine.
A Municipal Service Benefit Unit, or MSBU, allows a special assessment to be charged against a property of a specific locality because that property derives a special benefit from the expenditure of that money. This means a special assessment may be charged against properties in St. Johns County to pay for fire protection services because those same properties gain the benefit of having fire services provided. Some examples of other services legally funded through MSBUâ€™s in the state of Florida include parking facilities, street improvements, solid waste collection, sewer improvements and stormwater management.
Fire services in St. Johns County are currently funded through ad valorem property taxes, which means residents pay different amounts for fire protection based on the taxable values of their properties rather than the actual cost of providing fire protection service. Switching to an MSBU, a non-ad valorem assessment of equal amounts paid by owners of like properties, will provide a more equitable basis for payment of fire protection services.
The Board of County Commissioners has been clear, however, that a non-ad valorem MSBU will not result in increased taxes or a double-taxation. Instead, the implementation of the MSBU would result in a reduction of ad valorem fire taxes. The new fire fee would simply allow the funding of fire services to be handled in a more fair and equitable manner.
There are several benefits of switching to a fire assessment MSBU. One benefit is that an MSBU is a tax equity tool, meaning residents would pay the same amount for the same service, rather than paying based on the taxable value of their property. Currently five side-by-side condominiums of identical size and similar fire protection needs may pay five different amounts for fire services as part of their property tax bill, even though the same two fire trucks and ambulance would respond if any of the five condominiums needed fire services.
Another advantage of an MSBU is that it would provide a dedicated revenue source to provide fire services. This dedicated revenue source would ensure the funds collected in the MSBU would be used only for fire services. By having a dedicated funding source, the County will be able to proceed with its Master Plan of building a fully professional fire department and constructing additional fire stations throughout the County. Residents would not only benefit from the increased fire services, but many will also receive lower insurance rates and higher property values by having a fire station located closer to their properties.
Additionally, the MSBU would provide accountability to taxpayers. Data has been compiled to establish the actual cost per billing unit for fire facilities and services provided. The assessment fees are based on these established costs for different property types and allocated based on the proportionate cost of providing fire services to them. Categories of the special assessments include residential, commercial, industrial/warehouse and institutional. Factors considered in the calculation of the special assessments included the Countyâ€™s response standards (such as rate of water flow and personnel required to respond), as well as hazard class and square footage of the structure. Specifying types of properties and assessing them based on the actual cost of providing fire services to them is one of the core components of an MSBU.
The process of implementing an MSBU is multi-step. The Board of County Commissioners contracted with Tallahassee-based Government Services Group to assist with researching the data, defining the benefit and service area, calculating assessment rates and preparing an MSBU. Then, on June 10, 2008, the County enacted Ordinance 2008-34 and adopted Resolution 2008-165, which established the MSBU. The municipalities of St. Augustine, St. Augustine Beach and Hastings have also passed ordinances supporting the MSBU. In fact, the City of St. Augustine currently uses an MSBU to fund their fire services.
As required by Florida Statues, St. Johns County mailed notices this week to each property owner alerting them of the maximum amount that may be assessed to each property under the MSBU. At the Public Hearing on August 5, the Board of County Commissioners has the option of implementing the full assessment, implementing any portion of the assessment or not implementing the MSBU assessment at this time.
Residents who have questions about the MSBU may get more information by visiting the County website at www.sjcfl.us/FireMSBU, calling (904) 209-1760 or attending the Public Information Meeting at 7:00 pm on Wednesday, July 23.