Bill exempts fire district from CRA
Union persuades legislators to present bill preserving tax revenue

By Eve Modzelewski staff writer
December 4, 2003

ST. LUCIE COUNTY -- In a surprise move, the county's firefighter union persuaded state legislators Wednesday to support a bill preventing the St. Lucie County Fire District's tax revenue from being siphoned to the Fort Pierce Community Redevelopment Agency.

During the annual meeting of the St. Lucie County Legislative Delegation, the Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of St. Lucie County presented the bill, which received unanimous backing from the seven-member delegation but still must be approved in Tallahassee.

"It seems to be completely absurd that one taxing district would be taxing another district," said Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach.

The legislation would allow the district to keep more than $368,000 in tax revenue in the 2006-07 fiscal year, rather than diverting it to the Fort Pierce CRA, estimated Jim Tolley, the union's 9th district vice president. It would be exempt from all annual payments to the CRA starting in October 2007 if the bill passes.

Tolley pointed out that the St. Lucie County Fire District is the only district in the state that levies its own taxes yet is not exempt from returning revenue to CRAs.

Rep. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, urged the other legislators to give the bill "favorable consideration."

The document outlines an exemption similar to the one Port St. Lucie's CRA granted the fire district in October -- a deal expected to save the district about $25.3 million over 27 years.

Fire Chief Jay Sizemore attended the meeting but said he wasn't expecting the union's action.

"I was surprised because I didn't know a thing about this," Sizemore said.

Tim Munson, president of the union's Local 1377, said the bill was a last resort.

"When the city of Fort Pierce refused to even communicate with us, they left us no option but to go for legislation," Munson said.

The St. Lucie County Fire Board asked the Fort Pierce CRA for an exemption in October, but Fort Pierce Mayor Eddie Enns said in an Oct. 23 memo he wouldn't support such a move.

That month, firefighters protested in front of City Hall in Fort Pierce, saying fire district tax money should be spent only on emergency services.

Jim Walker, the Fort Pierce CRA's attorney who happened to be at the legislative delegation for a separate request, said he had two problems with the bill:

He alleged the fire district never formally applied for an exemption from the CRA, and he said he wasn't sure how such an exemption would affect the CRA's recently sold bonds.

State law allows communities to form CRAs to fund redevelopment in blighted areas. As property values appreciate, the increased tax revenue goes to the CRA for projects in the community -- not to the county, cities or fire district.

Reached after the meeting, Fort Pierce CRA Chairman Richard Coke said he was reluctant to comment until he looked at the legislation.

- eve.modzelewski@scripps.com