BRADENTON -- The Bradenton City Council is considering changing the way it pays for its fire department, which costs about $7 million each year to operate.
Council members are considering adopting an annual assessment tailored to each city property, rather than tapping the city’s general fund for the full amount of money each year.
Councilman Gene Gallo, a retired city of Bradenton fire chief, told a workshop meeting Wednesday that he was already hearing complaints from residents who refused to believe an assessment earmarked for the fire department and its capital projects was not a tax.
“All I’m telling you is the first feedback I got,” Gallo said.
Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey said she would like to review the pros and the cons of such a system so the public would better understand how it would work.
The assessment program would be similar to the way some of the fire districts in the county raise money. The Bradenton Fire Department would operate the same way it does now, officials said.
However, assessments would only pay part of the total fire department tab. The city council would decide what percentage of its budget it wanted to raise in assessments, but would also still use some general fund dollars, too, officials said.
Since assessments legally could not pay for the department’s emergency medical services, for example, those costs would be paid for by general fund dollars, officials said.
“This would identify us, it would be apples-to-apples with all our neighbors,” said Councilman Patrick Roff.
“It is a more fair system for getting more people to contribute, and there’s lots of people not contributing for fire protection; some of those, schools, for instance, and churches, we could say to the church: The sanctuary itself is tax exempt, and the other buildings aren’t -- but they all get fire protection,” Roff said.
Last week, the council heard from Camille Tharpe, senior vice president and director of the government services division at Government Services Group Inc., a Tallahassee company that has done fire assessment studies and programs for about 70 Florida cities and counties.
She defined “fire assessment” as a charge imposed against real property to pay for fire service provided by local government.
Among its pluses, according to Tharpe’s presentation:
n It’s a cost-effective and a financially stable means of funding fire services and facilities.
n It’s a tax equity tool that filters out such “inequities” as the Save Our Homes tax break and homestead-exempt property.
n It’s a dedicated funding source that preserves the quality of fire service and also provides accountability because it establishes the cost per billing unit.
Some negatives, she said, include the possibility that assessments would be perceived as a “tax;” they may appear regressive when compared to property taxes; and an assessment program may require complex additional data.
Fire assessment rates across Florida range from $6 to $300 per residential dwelling unit, with an average of about $120, Tharpe said Wednesday.
Councilman Harold Byrd Jr. was concerned about those living on fixed incomes.
“What about the elderly person that probably pays a little bit or nothing, and all of a sudden, you’re going to throw an assessment on them?
“But all that will come out when we look at the pros and cons,” he said.