Fizzling budget sparks fire tax talks in Oviedo

The Oviedo City Council is exploring options for a separate fire tax to make up for considerable budgetary shortfalls.

For years, public safety costs have outpaced the amount the city collects in property taxes. Since the Great Recession of 2008, nearly $33 million has been taken from other areas of the budget, including funding staff positions and capital projects, to pad the public safety budget. For instance, city staff has been reduced from nine full-time employees per 1,000 residents in 2007 to seven per 1,000 today.

The Council considered six different ways to carry out the separate tax, known as the Fire Assessment District, during a work session on Monday night.

The majority of Council members favored an option (called Alternative 2) that would charge property owners $240 per 2,125 square feet of building area with a cap of $12,000 annually. This is projected to collect $5.3 million, with about $476,000 still coming from the city’s general budget.

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Mayor Megan Sladek favored an option (called Alternative 6) that would weigh costs for different classes of property based on historical demand for fire protection services. The cost for property owners would be $186 per 2,125 square feet of building area. Non-residential properties would be charged 35 cents per square foot with a cap of 106,250 square feet. This is projected to collect $5.3 million, with about $762,000 still coming from the city’s general budget.

Sladek said she favored this option because it’s a lower base rate and it charges owners of vacant land less money ($37 per parcel) because a fire on a property without a structure would cost less to serve. In Alternative 2, vacant properties would be charged $240 per 11,300 square feet of land with a cap of $12,000.

“That just seems fair,” she said. “If it’s empty, maybe there’ll be a brush fire but that’s not like ‘Ya better go really, really fast because a building’s on fire.’ And I would imagine you’d send different equipment.”

Councilman Jeff Boddiford said he thought Alternative 6 charged apartment buildings too much money and worried that the owners would pass that cost down to the renters. He calculated that Oviedo City Place on Oviedo Boulevard would pay $37,000. Sladek argued that in Alternative 2, single-family homes subsidize apartments.

Staff will run new scenarios combining the Council members’ concerns, including lower rates for vacant properties, adding in previously exempted properties such as privately owned hospitals, private schools and churches, and adding the option for lower charges for residences that total less than 2,125 square feet. New options will be presented to Council in about one month.

“This is going to be a change in what people have to pay every year, year over year. The lower we can potentially make that change, the better,” Sladek said.

Oviedo Fire Chief Michael Woodward said the taxing district would mean that a future recession would not affect the city’s public safety force.

“This will provide public safety a more stable funding source,” he said. “Right now everything’s based on property values. This is a guarantee.”

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