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    Post Osceola County--Taxes may skyrocket for Fire and EMS

    Orlando Sentinel

    Fire-tax bill may become whopper

    By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer
    Posted June 11, 2003


    KISSIMMEE -- Homeowners in unincorporated Osceola would face steeper bills for fire protection and emergency medical services -- some twice as much or more -- under a plan county commissioners gave preliminary approval to this week.

    The tab would be $250 for the owner of a home valued at $125,000 with the $25,000 homestead exemption, double the current fire protection-EMS bill of $125.

    Citing a need to dramatically beef up both services, commissioners agreed Monday to add a special property tax of $2.50 per $1,000 of taxable value to pay for both services. Residents now pay a flat $93.62 fee for fire service and 31 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value for EMS coverage.

    People who own higher-end homes would be socked the hardest. For example, a person with a home valued at $175,000 who qualifies for the homestead exemption would pay $375 under the proposal -- a 168 percent increase. The way things work out, businesses would see mostly small increases -- about 3 to 4 percent -- in their overall bill, now based on square footage.

    "I just don't know that there is anything else we can do," Commissioner Ken Smith said. "We're going to have to have the intestinal fortitude to say, 'Hey, guess what. We may not get re-elected, but we have to do something.' "

    Commissioners pledged to hold the line on the fire-EMS tax at $2.50 for five years.

    The proposed change is just one of many tough decisions being considered during shaping of the 2003-04 budget, which is to be unveiled June 30. The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

    With money tight and requests up for various services, commissioners are bracing for inevitable unpopular choices either to cut services or to boost taxes and fees.

    For instance, the switch to funding fire and EMS with a dedicated property tax rate would free up $2.6 million from the general fund, money needed to cover what the current system doesn't pay for. A staff proposal calls for using that $2.6 million to help make up a $160 million shortfall for capital projects during the next five years, while commissioners want the money cut from the general-fund budget rather than spent on other uses.

    Even if the $2.6 million is sliced from the general-fund budget, which covers the cost of most basic services, most residents would pay more in overall taxes. Commissioners insist they do not want to raise the general tax rate and refuse to call the proposed special tax a tax increase, though eliminating money from the general fund that went toward fire-EMS costs in the general fund would not be a wash for residents.

    A reduction in the general county tax rate of only about 25 cents from $5.90 per $1,000 of taxable property value would apply to residents in the cities and well as the unincorporated county.

    Last year, in the face of minor public protest, commissioners got out their knives when the initial budget proposal called for a $107 flat fire fee plus 70 cents per $1,000 of taxable value for emergency services. However, since reducing those rates, commissioners have responded to complaints about the Fire Department by promising to make improvements.

    The new tax would generate $25 million to pay for improvements as well as to convert two all-volunteer stations each year into stations run by paid firefighters. Commissioners also plan to build four new fire stations in the next five years to accommodate developments such as Harmony, east of St. Cloud, and the proposed county convention center.

    A study on whether the county is on the right track will not be completed until July or August, after the budget process is well under way.

    To do the same work under the current system would require the fire fee to be increased to about $149.07 and the EMS tax rate to 83 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value on a home with a taxable value of $100,000 and a homestead exemption. That amount would have to be increased annually.

    Only Commissioner Atlee Mercer, who was not on the commission last year, voiced opposition to the idea of going to a special property tax.

    April Hunt can be reached at 407-931-5940 or ahunt@orlandosentinel.com
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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    Post Double your Money????

    County asked to double fire/EMS fees
    12 Jun 2003
    By Sylvia L. Oliande News-Gazette Staff Writer
    To avoid a projected $160 million deficit by 2008 if the county does all proposed projects in its capital improvements program, Osceola will have to consider several tax adjustments, including a significant increase in fees for fire and emergency services.

    That was the scenario laid out for county commissioners during a capital improvements budget workshop on Monday.

    To help cut that deficit to a manageable number, county officials outlined a plan that would consolidate the fire fee and EMS assessment to a special taxing unit of $2.50 per $1,000 of taxable property value paid by residents in the unincorporated area of the county.

    Under a combined fire/EMS bill, a homeowner whose home is valued at $125,000, with a $25,000 homestead exemption, would pay $250 per year. Under the current fee schedule, he pays $125 annually.

    The fund would raise about $25 million in the first year, some of which would go toward the commission’s goal of staffing two all-volunteer fire stations with career professionals each year.

    County commissioners said while they might be willing to combine the fire and EMS funds at the suggested level, they wanted to be sure the county’s operations were as streamlined as possible.

    It’s a tough decision anytime elected officials raise taxes, said commission Chairman Paul Owen, noting the impact it has on the average citizen, especially in a bad economy.

    “I’m not saying we shouldn’t raise taxes, that there’s not a need for the services,” he said. “But I’m going to look at every part of the budget very carefully. I’m going to make sure there aren’t other options there.”

    Commissioner Ken Smith said it’s time that the county had the “intestinal fortitude” to make some significant changes.

    “We can’t keep doing what we keep doing, sticking our heads in the sand and saying it’s going to get better in 18 months,” he said. “I don’t know where else to go except allow our quality of life to continue to be degraded.”

    The commission seemed to be inclined to raise the fee because of the need to strengthen both fire and emergency medical services, which has not kept pace with new growth.

    Still, during last year’s budget process, the commission chose to raise the fire fee and EMS assessment by less than they had been asked.

    Unincorporated residents currently pay a flat $93.62 fire fee and about 31 cents per $1,000 of taxable property value for EMS services. The commission had been asked last year to raise the fire fee to a flat $107 and the EMS assessment to 70 cents per $1,000 value.

    Acting County Manager Laura Blackmon told the commission that people with higher residential property values would be hit hardest by the plan because it would move away from a flat fee. Commercial property would see a smaller increase.

    If ultimately approved, the consolidated fund would free up $2.6 million from the general fund, which is now being used to subsidize the department.

    County officials indicated that can be used to help close the gap on the expected $160 million shortfall in the capital improvement program.

    Blackmon has already identified various projects that can be taken out of the capital improvements program to save money, including moving the planned courthouse expansion out two years, removing an indoor gymnasium in Buenaventura Lakes and reducing various greenways and trails.

    But commissioners said they would rather see those funds help lessen the impact on taxpayers, possibly by reducing the property tax rate by a comparable amount.

    “We could do that,” Blackmon said. “Then we’d really have to cut.”

    Elected officials agreed that the county must increase the impact fees paid on new development to as high as can be legally defended so that growth can finally pay for itself and temper the hit to taxpayers.

    County officials said raising impact fees could reduce the projected capital improvements program deficit to about $79 million over five years.

    Commissioner Ken Shipley said before he would consider raising taxes, he wanted a study on what exactly the needs are and he wanted to see that the county is doing proper cost-cutting measures internally.

    “Instituting good program processes and properly managing tax revenues is hard; raising taxes is easy,” he said. “I’m challenging (staff) to take the hard way.”

    He said before he passes a budget that establishes two new career stations a year over five years, he wants to see the results of a study on fire services currently being conducted to see that two are really necessary. That study is not expected to be ready until later this summer.

    Shipley advocates having department directors create internal committees that would meet to come up with ways to streamline their operations, taking a hard look at the size of the departments and the way they do business.

    He also said the drastic personnel cuts that Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer is currently making to his organization are “some serious steps, and he’s not wrong.”
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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