INDIAN ROCKS BEACH - The Board of Commissioners of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District (PSF&RD) twice voted to change the rate it charges its residential customers from a flat fee of $190 a year, regardless of the size of the home, to a rate of 17 cents per square foot.
The first unanimous vote Tuesday night was taken without allowing any input from the public.
When an angry howl arose from audience members, chairman Tom Hafner told them that they had had plenty of opportunities to air their views at previous meetings. But the district’s attorney, Jeff Albinson, overrode him.
“All that happened was that the chairman got ahead of himself,” Albinson told the seething crowd.
After accepting feedback from the public, the commissioners repeated their unanimous vote, which must be ratified by the voters in November.
Since it was founded in 1953, the district has relied on a flat fee for its funding. For 11 years, it was $120, until voters approved raising it to $190 last year.
Even that 58 percent raise wasn’t enough to get the district out of the danger of going belly-up. The $3,821,749 budget for the next fiscal year includes a $132,000 deficit.
“We’re not trying to raise all the money we can; we’re just trying to raise enough money to operate the department,” Commissioner Bill Ripley said. “Flat revenues have been our downfall.”
Cutting costs isn’t a viable option because personnel costs make up most of the budget, and the state fire marshall mandates the number of firefighters the district must have. In addition, the 45 career firefighters have been promised a 7 percent raise next year, although management will receive no pay increase.
At first, the commissioners wanted to impose an ad valorem, or property tax. But they dropped that idea when they found out that they couldn’t put a cap on the fire tax paid by high-end homes. That’s when Commissioner Bob McEwen came up with the idea of charging 17 cents per square foot, which is expected to bring in $4 million a year.
“I feel the square footage is fair,” Hafner agreed. “Some of the mayors didn’t want ad valorem, and this takes ad valorem out of the picture.”
It’s good news for owners of small homes and bad news for owners of large ones. For a 1,000-square-foot home, the annual fire fee would drop from $190 to $170. But, for the owner of a 4,000-square-foot home, it would jump from $190 to $680.