INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – The special task force formed to find a way to fund the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District has come up with a figure designed to keep the district operating without having to cut service or lay off any employees.
At its Aug. 16 meeting, task force members decided that a $100 increase in annual assessments be imposed on homeowners and businesses within the district. That resolution will now have to be approved by the fire district Board of Commissioners and then, if approved, go to a referendum in the March 2019 election.
Much of the discussion at the meeting centered on how many hotel/motel rooms were in the district and how increases would be handled.
It was decided that motels, which currently pay $165 a year per room, will pay the additional $100 or $265 a year per room.
Residences, including apartments, condos and time shares, will see their annual assessment go from $260 to $360.
Businesses that currently pay a base rate of $286 annually will have to pay $386. Any charges currently outside the base rate will not be affected.
As in previous meetings PSFRD Chief Mike Burton said the important topic now is to get the wording on the referendum clear and simple.
“The challenge is to get the language that is not confusing to voters,” he said. “You want very, very clear ballot language.”
It was the wording in the last referendum that the courts deemed confusing and struck down the request to tie the funding into the ad valorem taxes. That decision was made after a lawsuit brought by IRB Commissioner Ed Hoofnagle. Burton said he doesn’t want that to happen again.
Task Force members agreed that the $100 increase should be acceptable to the residents and businesses in the district.
Katrena Hale, who owns a motel property in Indian Shores, said the increase should not put too much of a burden on businesses such as hers.
“Do I want to pay an additional $700 a year? No, but that is what I will have to do,” she said. “That is not all that horrible.”
With the decision made to recommend the $100 increase to the Board of Commissioners it would seem the work of the Task Force would be over. Since April they have met twice a month, and Burton said they covered a lot of ground both in understanding the scope and role of the Fire District and the need to fund it, with equipment quickly falling out of date and insufficient accommodations for staff and firefighters.
However, for the time being the Task Force will remain. If the Board of Commissioners rejects their recommendation it could be back to the drawing board. If it accepts the recommendation, then task force members will be asked to assist in educating the residents in hope of getting them to approve the referendum.
“If the commission approves our recommendation then there will have to be a seven or eight-month education program,” said Burton. “Once the decision is made a lot of heavy lifting is going to have to be done by a lot of people.”
The fire district provides service to the communities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores and the Oakhurst area on the mainland.
Throughout the process the question of what will happen if the referendum is rejected by the voters has been raised. Burton didn’t pull any punches in his closing remarks at the meeting.
“In our upcoming budget we are facing a deficit of $355,000,” he said. “We cannot go on with deficit spending; I’m quite concerned with what is going on.”
“We will be left with no choice but do selective reductions; that is not an idle threat. We will have to reduce service and perhaps close a station or have selective brown-outs, where a station is not staffed from time to time. In my four decades in this business I have never had to do that.”
“My concerns for the future are pretty real,” he said.
The next meeting of the Task Force is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 6, at 9 a.m. in the IRB City Hall.
The fire district’s budget will be presented to the Board of Commissioners Thursday, Sept. 6, at 7 p.m. in the Indian Shores Town Hall.
It hasn’t been decided when the Task Force resolution regarding the $100 increase will be presented to the board