City, county may explore a fire fee

by Brad Buck
The Palatka Daily News


Palatka Fire Chief Ken Venables hopes to revive an idea the city tried a decade ago - a fire service fee that everyone in the city would pay.
Putnam County Administrator Rick Leary said Friday the county may also examine a fire assessment for every resident.
Venables said Thursday that he will go to the city commission sometime in the near future with a request to seek bids from consultants to see if the fire service fee is viable. County commissioners also would consider hiring a consultant to learn the merits of a fire fee, Leary said.
Palatka Mayor Karl Flagg said Friday anything that relieves the burden on property taxpayers merits reviewing, but he doesn't like the idea of paying a consultant. He would prefer that Venables do the research.
"I don't see where we need to reinvent the wheel," Flagg said. "We need to be innovative in the way we raise money. More money doesn't make us more efficient. We're talking about people, and we're talking about people paying more fees."
Too many people in the city and county don't pay anything for fire services because they don't pay property taxes, Venables said. They don't have to pay the taxes because their homes are worth less than the state's $25,000 homestead exemption.
"It's one of the options we need to explore," Venables said of the fire fee.
Venables brought up reviving the fee idea at a meeting of Local Governments in Cooperation (LOGIC) in August 2002.
In 1994, Palatka adopted an ordinance for police and fire service fees. But the police fee portion was struck down by the state Supreme Court, Venables said. The high court, however, left the fire service fee alone, he said. The city simply has not enforced it, Venables said.
"With a fee, everyone pays for services," said Venables.
The nonprofit Florida Tax Watch reports fire assessment fees are becoming more popular with officials who want to raise money but not taxes. A fire service fee in Tallahassee has been successful, the chief said. Residential service for an apartment in that city is $7 a month.
Marion County and many rural Florida counties require all residents to pay for fire services, Venables said. The rural counties impose the fee for the same reason Venables hopes Palatka does - they have so little tax base.
Venables' forthcoming proposal comes on the heels of the county's Fire Services Task Force making recommendations about a potential merger of fire and paramedic services in Putnam County. Before the report went to county commissioners last week, the panel, which includes Venables, went through much, often heated discussion about its merits.
"Things are somewhat unsettled now, and we don't want to add fuel to the fire, no pun intended," he said.