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Simplify fire department finances to best serve residents

Hernando County is trying to devise a way to pay for fire and ambulance services across the county, but the convoluted proposals floating around should motivate the commission to try a much more simple financing method — property taxes.

There are plenty of questions to be considered Tuesday at a commission workshop on public safety. Are patrons of volunteer fire departments getting a freebie? Is a flat rate fee charged to every homeowner equitable? Should the definition of public safety be broadened to include animal services and code enforcement?

Key to all this, however, should be tax fairness as commissioners move to formally consolidate the Spring Hill and Hernando County fire departments.

For instance, residents served by the volunteer departments in Hernando Beach and High Point do not pay the county's approximately $195-per-home assessment for fire services even though county trucks and firefighters respond to those neighborhoods to assist volunteers on calls for service. (Hernando Beach residents pay their own, less-expensive assessment and High Point finances its department through its homeowners association.) The volunteer areas repay the county via a surcharge that, unfortunately, does not cover the county's cost of responding. Essentially, the rest of the county is paying a higher assessment to run a fire department that takes a financial loss every time it rolls to Hernando Beach or High Point.

Options for commissioners include charging the higher county assessment on Hernando Beach residents or raising the cost of the county reimbursement when those areas need professional firefighters.

More to the point, commissioners should consider the wisdom of abolishing their own per-house assessment, adopted in 1999, and paying for the entire fire department through a straight property tax. That is much more fair than expecting every home owner, regardless of their income, property value or tax exemptions, to kick in for fire service.

Likewise, commissioners should rethink the logic of lumping animals services and code enforcement into the special taxing district that also pays for public safety. It's a sleight of hand that simply pushes the cost of those valuable county services out of the general fund and into a separate budget silo, freeing those departments from the intense scrutiny commissioners annually focus on their own general fund.

The proposed ordinance include no dollar figures — those would be established for the fiscal year beginning October 2013. Commissioners previously were briefed on a plan to finance public safety via a flat rate fee of $123.53 per home (with a separate commercial assessment based on square footage) and a fire/ambulance tax of $1.75 per $1,000 of assessed value. Those figures, however, were devised before the commission proposed pushing the cost of animal services and code enforcement into the special taxing district.

Commissioners indicated in an August workshop that formula was too complex. No wonder. It is a convoluted financing system that clouds transparency and unfairly burdens people of lesser means with a disproportionate share of the public safety costs. Including animal services and code enforcement is denying commission's responsibility to set an adequate general fund budget and tax rate to finance it.

This is easy to simplify. Commissioners can better serve their constituents by establishing a straightforward ad valorem tax exclusively for traditional firefighting and rescue services.

Simplify fire department finances to best serve residents 12/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 1, 2012 10:57am]
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