Fire District Task Force mulls over referendum wording

The Pinellas County Suncoast Fire & Rescue District task force is planning for a referendum in the March 2019 election.

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – The special task force of the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District made it clear at their meeting July 19 that they had better get the wording right if they are going to be successful in getting residents to agree to an increase in what they pay to support the district.

The district task force is planning for a referendum in the March 2019 election. The board was formed after an earlier referendum to use property tax to pay for the district was approved by the voters but overturned by a judge because of poor and confusing wording.

The fire district made it clear that to avoid layoffs and service cuts money had to come from somewhere. That is the job of the task force, which has been meeting for several months.

At an earlier meeting the task force agreed that homeowners would be asked in a new referendum if they would be willing to pay another $100 a year on top of the $260 they currently pay. Task force members reported at the meeting that people they talked to agreed it was a reasonable amount.

Fire Chief Mike Burton then turned his attention to the matter of increases for non-residential and commercial properties. He explained that it would be somewhat more complicated than the residential increases because there were several classifications of assessments when it came to commercial property especially.

“Right now we get $241,000 annually from commercial assessments,” he said. “If we add $100 or a percentage we would get an additional $77,000 and I wonder if it is worth it to try to get the wording correct on a referendum.”

Burton explained that right now businesses pay a flat fee, but it isn’t simple. A restaurant pays so much, but if it has a bar then it pays another fee, if it has a kitchen yet another one. If on the property outside the main building there is a shed, then there is an additional charge. He said it would be impossible to get all those words onto a ballot that residents would understand.

Several task force members were concerned that adding a flat $100 to each business might be too much of an increase especially for those on the lower end of the scale that now pay only $95 a year.

“They are just going to have to pay the $100 extra dollars even if it is unfair,” said task force member Matt Loder of Indian Rocks Beach. “But it is very important to make the language simple, because if I don’t understand it I’ll just vote no.”

Indian Shores’ representative Katrena Hale agreed.

“Keep it simple because if people can’t understand it they will vote no,” she said.

Burton then introduced another wrinkle in the discussion when he said that his proposal didn’t call for an additional $100 for commercial property but an increase of 38 percent, which he said would yield about the same revenue.

That didn’t sit well with Brigett Cerce of the Oakhurst area.

“I’m worried that the residents will get confused with the 38 percent and will think it applies to them,” she said.

Loder on the other hand said 38 percent didn’t sound bad to him.

The discussion then turned to how much it would cost to put the question to the voters in the form of a referendum in the March election.

Burton said he didn’t know but was told by election authorities that it would be cheaper to hold the referendum when communities in the district were also having elections.

There was also talk of having an election by mail only. The chief said each mail-in ballot cost 91 cents and would be the cheapest way to go. The question remained however if a mail-in only election is allowed.

Hale told the task force members that from talking to the Indian Shores City Council, she got the message that they want to see a budget before they will agree to support the task force findings.

“A clear concise budget,” she said. “With expenditures clearly mapped out, and we will have to be knowledgeable on the subject if we are going to be talking about it.”

Loder said community outreach will be important to get residents to understand the need for more money to support the fire district. He said he and his company, Crabby Bill’s, would be glad to host an open house at a fire station and provide free food so residents could come and learn.

Loder remained committed to the importance of getting the language right on the referendum.

“We want the language to pass so we can have the fire service that we need,” he said.

The next meeting of the Task Force will be on Thursday, Aug. 2, at 9 a.m. in the Indian Rocks Beach City Hall when there will be more discussion on commercial and non-residential assessments. The meetings are open to the public.

Corrected the amount residents currently pay for service from $160 to $260.