The fire assessment fee is a “non-ad valorem special assessment.” There are two tiers. Tier 1, for developed properties, is based on a fraction of improved value and tier 2 is assessed a flat rate ( for vacant parcels). The fire assessment fees have been increasing steadily since they were implemented in 2012. FY 2016 fire assessment for tier 1 properties was $.80 per $1000 of improvement value and $100 per parcel for tier 2 properties. FY 2017 approved fire assessments for tier 1 was $.85 per $1000 of improved value and $125 per parcel for Tier 2. This year rates were set at $0.97 per $1000 for tier 1 and $135 for tier two. City Council approved tentative rates for FY 2019 at $1.10 per $1000 of improved value and a flat fee of $143 annually.
The tier system is based on the “readiness to serve” methodology in which there is always a potential to provide service and the department needs to be funded in order to provide that service. Even a vacant lot can catch fire, so the idea is that the owner of the vacant lot needs to contribute to funding the fire department.
The council voted 2-1 to pass the tentative assessments, but not without disapproval of the tentative rate hike. Council Member William Kemerer was absent for this meeting.
City Manager Mark Kutney introduced the discussion of tentative Brooksville Fire-Rescue assessments for Fiscal Year 2019. The tentative rate needs to be provided to the Property Appraiser’s office before July 16, 2018.
According to Kutney, the numbers to be provided to the Property Appraiser are higher than last year. He explained, “Generally, in TRIM (truth in millage) … you tend to put in a higher number because you can’t raise it after the fact. You can always lower it, but if you decided you wanted to raise it, there is a lengthy process, it’s very costly, so staff has always recommended to council that they provide the higher rate.”
Finance Director James Lasch presented the proposed budget, which does not include employee raises. The Fire Department budget does include the salary of approximately $83,000 for a permanent Fire Chief. Lasch reported that capital expenditures are projected to be around $6300 less than the prior year. Insurance rates have not been determined yet, but are expected to remain at their current rates.
Of the tentative fire assessment Lasch remarked, “This is the same amount that went out on the TRIM notice last year,” he said, reiterating Kutney’s explanation that raising the rate later would be expensive for the city.
Mayor Betty Erhard asked Interim Fire Chief Ronald Snowberger, “You stated in the last council meeting that you could reduce the budget … Do you have plans … to reduce, because this evening we’re talking about increasing the fire fees.”
Snowberger responded, “I can live within the $1.8-million budget that was submitted.” He went on to say that “Post-decision of keeping the fire department (under the City of Brooksville), I am reviewing the budget, wanting to make sure that I go through everything.” Snowberger advised that the budget to which he referred was proposed and submitted by a predecessor. “If we need to, I will follow the direction of the Council to live within that budget. At the same time, I think there might be some information that you’ll want to look at as well.” Snowberger did not elaborate on his statement.
Council Member Joe Bernardini said, “I’ve voted against this rate increase in the past. I don’t like it at its current rate (Tier One at 0.97 and $135 for Tier Two) … I think the ($135) is too high. I don’t want to give anybody any false pretenses that if I vote for this at a higher rate that I’m accepting this, because … I will not support (1.1) and $145 at any point in time.”
Bernardini went on to say that he was disappointed to learn that the budget for ALS coverage is still undetermined between the city and Hernando County. Brooksville City Council was under the impression that Hernando County would provide ALS services entirely. “I don’t want to hear now that we’re going to have to pay more for Advanced Life Support (ALS), because that’s not what we were led to believe, and I don’t like to be misled.”
Snowberger assured the council that they have not been misled, and that information will soon be coming with regard to funding by the county and any grant money provided.
Vice Mayor Robert Battista agreed with Bernardini, and added (regarding ALS) that he remembered the County Fire Chief promising to provide the ALS equipment and the differential in salary. “There may be some training issues involved … but then again, there are individuals out there who are trained, so we may not have to grow our own initially.” Battista concluded with “But, they will live within the budget we give them.”
With no other discussion from the council, Erhard said, “I’ve never supported fire assessment fees … and I’m not going to support an increase. We have to learn to live within our means. I sign the checks every Thursday, and I believe there can still be some cuts (to the budget).”
Lasch addressed the council again to add that a difference between the pending FY 2019 budget and the current is actually slightly lower by about $3600.
Although no present council members approved of ultimately setting the rate, Vice Mayor Battista moved to accept the tentative rate, with council member Bernardini reluctantly seconding. The council voted 2-1 to pass the tentative assessments.