County looks at fire rate hike

Published May 16. 2003 8:30AM

BY BILL THOMPSON
Staff Writer


OCALA - Marion County's way to handle upwardly spiraling costs for fire and emergency services may mean higher costs for low- and moderate-income families, while providing a break for wealthier ones.

But all landowners in unincorporated Marion County may face slight tax hikes, or offsetting reductions in services, as county commissioners scramble to cover a nearly $4 million budget shortfall in paying for fire protection and life-saving services.

The board heard the new proposal for the first time at a workshop Thursday. The change in financing fire services is designed to deal with the 12 percent cost leap anticipated for next fiscal year. It's also intended to shield the county legally in the wake of a recent Florida Supreme Court ruling that shot down the idea of creating special assessments to pay for ambulance service

Amid a dizzying array of funding proposals offered Thursday, the board will focus on shifting revenues and, possibly, creating a new countywide property tax to fund the estimated $3.9 million it needs for next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

The bulk of that deficit - $2.3 million - is slated to fund so-called emergency services as outlined in the high court's ruling. The board needs to make up $1.1 million for projected cost increases. The other $1.2 million will cover a gap caused by exemptions for groups such as churches, schools, or hospitals.

In addition, commissioners need to find about $1.6 million to meet the county's obligation for the newly proposed four-way partnership to provide ambulance service. That's also slated to begin Oct. 1. The city of Ocala and the county's two hospitals - Munroe Regional Medical Center and Ocala Regional Medical Center - plan to share in the cost.

Regarding fire services, the current fire-service fee system may be logical and the board may choose to leave it alone, the county's consultants said. But it may not stand up if challenged in court because it lacks clearly defined standards, and the county may be forced to refund the assessment and start over if it were to lose.

Heather Encinosa, a lawyer with the Tallahassee firm that advises the county on financial matters, said the court drew a "fuzzy, moving line" in segmenting what special assessments and property taxes can fund.

The county may spend its property taxes to put out fires and perform rudimentary first-aid techniques, she said. But those revenues cannot be used for advanced life support or ambulance rides because there's no justifiable benefit to property.

So, the county's fee structure was reworked to reflect the breakdown of who actually benefits from emergency calls.

The impact, if the proposal remains as is, would be immediately noticeable to residential properties and some service-oriented groups in unincorporated Marion County.

The consultants recommend a flat $124 yearly fee be charged to nearly 94,000 homeowners, who now pay according to the size of their home. Homeowners with houses smaller than 2,000 square feet pay about $92; those with homes 2,000-2,999 square feet pay roughly $120; those whose residences run 3,000 square feet or larger are charged about $148, plus another $28 for each additional 1,000 square feet or fraction thereof.

The fees were expected to increase for all groups by October, and the planned increase would drive the middle group above the $124 threshold, fire Chief Stuart McElhaney said.

The number of homes in each category wasn't immediately available. But Camille Tharpe, vice president of Government Services Group Inc., which conducted the review, said about 53 percent of homeowners will pay less under the flat rate than they would have with the projected increase in the current fee schedule.

Myra Tedder, director of the county's MSTU/Assessment office, pointed out that financial help may be available for low-income families who can't pay.

Businesses, farms and owners of vacant land will also see differences, but the impact to them is less clear right now, McElhaney added. That's because they were reconfigured into more specific land-use categories than the county now uses and require further study before they can be compared.

But some of the non-residential groups will see an increase regardless. Under the current formula, all landowners whose use is identified as institutional - schools, churches, nursing homes, hospitals - are exempt.

The consultants propose that the county strip away that status for those considered for-profit. That saves the county an estimated $300,000.

To fund the fire-service portion, commissioners are considering two options. One involves drawing some amount from a surplus in the solid waste fund and the rest from the revenues of a telecommunications tax that raises about $1.1 million a year.

If the board opts for this plan, the revenues lost from the communications tax, which is already at its maximum level, could be made up through higher property taxes or reductions in other areas.

The other formula calls for taking some from the solid waste account and creating a new property tax levied in unincorporated Marion County and in the cities of Belleview, McIntosh and Reddick. Those cities contract with the county for fire service and would have to pass ordinances supporting the tax. The amount of the tax has yet to be determined.

The board, meanwhile, is weighing using the $3 million solid waste surplus to pay the county's portion of the ambulance service.

County Administrator Pat Howard said city and county staff have agreed that the county will pay 71 percent, based on overall property values, of what's needed to fund the $2.28 million public share. That translates to about $1.6 million for the county.

The board, however, did not rule out implementing a new property tax, similar to that suggested for fire service, to pay for that.

Bill Thompson covers county government and can be reached at 867-4117, or at bill.thompson@starbanner.com.