A word or two about the city fire fee

I’ve taken the last week to sort out my feelings about the response of the St. Augustine City Commission in unanimously voting August 24th to raise the city’s fire assessment fee.

In reporting the meeting, The Record reporter, Peter Guinta, wrote that although the vote “was unpopular”, “even anti-tax residents seemed to grudgingly understand that it was necessary to prevent higher property taxes”.

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment.

A lot was made during the meeting, in the media before the “unpopular vote” and again in Guinta’s report after the meeting, that the “fire fee is levied on all city properties — except Florida National Guard headquarters and the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind”.

Residents that spoke to me, took the inference that the Chief Administrative Officer, City Manager and Mayor were saying that – only by raising the fire fee – were they, somehow, able to “right a wrong” by spreading the cost burden of providing fire service to non-profits; collecting money from organizations that were previously exempt.

That inference is wrong. The churches and other non-profits who own property within the city limits have always paid the fire fee. Now, they will simply pay more — along with every other property owner. The churches and other non-profits will continue to pay no property taxes.

And, speaking of ad valorem taxes, the city commission, in approving the increased fire fee – which adds an additional $325,000 of income to the city’s bank account – did not pass up the opportunity to also increase the ad valorem millage.

The city fire department budget is $3.2 million dollars. Add to this cost, the value of various state and federal grants that the department receives – also funded by us, as taxpayers.

Chief Administrative Officer Tim Burchfield said “We looked at other areas to spread the cost out. The fire fee would allow us to not raise ad valorem as much.”

I think Dan Holiday, who spoke during public comments, said it best when he said “This is no time to be raising taxes for any reason. Tighten your belt.”

What The Record did NOT quote, was Holiday’s comment that city government has created some “sacred cows” – the cost of people and programs whose elimination is NEVER open for discussion.

But then, Guinta wrote that Holiday is “a businessman and native St. Augustinian”. Holiday moved to St. Augustine in his mid-twenties and is a native of Syracuse, in upstate New York.

You can’t expect $100 worth of city services for $50, however, you have every right to expect $100 worth of city services for your $100, and, in the present city budget, we are paying for a lot of “sacred cows”.

The fact is, raising the fire fee did not prevent higher property taxes; once you admit that whether you call it a “fee” or a “tax” — its still a tax. Raising the ad valorem millage did not prevent higher property taxes.

“Tighten your belt” should be the order of the day. Eliminating pet programs and unnecessary duplication of expense in operating our city government is the only real solution – even though some individuals will have to do without and some levels of service will – and should – be reduced.

Over the past 7 years, the taxpaying population within the city limits has experienced very little increase in size; however, the cost to operate the city government has grown considerably.

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