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Oviedo takes steps toward fire tax

Editor’s note: This article was edited after publication to clarify that the fire tax district got first approval, not the actual tax.

A fire tax district, which would make it possible for the city to establish a separate fire tax for Oviedo residents, got the first of two approvals it needs from Oviedo City Council on Monday night. 

The Council’s final consideration for the taxing district is expected at its Feb. 21 meeting. If approved, residents won’t actually get a bill unless the tax rate and calculation method are approved, a process that will span several more public meetings. If everything is approved, Oviedo homeowners could see about a $200 assessment on their property tax bill this year, depending on the calculation method that’s adopted.

Here’s the public meeting schedule surrounding the potential fire tax and the city budget:

Image courtesy of the City of Oviedo.

Councilwoman Natalie Teuchert asked for public input on the fire tax.

“If anyone in the public has any questions or comments on why we’re going this route, it’s a several month process. Feel free to reach out to us,” she said.

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 for 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.

If approved, the tax aims to collect $5.3 million – the city’s projected 2023 fire department budget. The city’s budget planning for the fiscal year 2022-2023 will begin in June.

“This will give us an opportunity to discuss how much wiggle room we want to create to start doing some of the backlogged items that are important to keep our city a quality place to live,” Mayor Megan Sladek said.

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Sladek said she’s gotten questions from residents about why the city doesn’t outsource their fire protection services to Seminole County, as other municipalities have done.

“We run our fire department more efficiently and at less cost than the county does. So If we were to outsource it, our residents would actually have to pay more,” she said.

City Manager Bryan Cobb said this tax would not affect service within the city or beyond. Oviedo participates in Seminole County’s First Response System with Winter Springs, Lake Mary, Longwood, Sanford, Casselberry, Altamonte Springs, unincorporated areas of the county and the Orlando Sanford International Airport. This means that a tracking system dispatches whichever responder is closest to the call, no matter which department it is.

“Nothing service-related will change,” Cobb said during the meeting. “This is just to provide a dedicated funding source.”

Possible considerations for the tax rate

During a Jan. 10 City Council meeting, the Council considered six different ways to carry out the separate tax, known as the Fire Assessment District.

Council members focused on two different options. One (called Alternative 2), 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 $4.9 million of the total $5.3 million. The $476,000 gap is due to land owned by exempt organizations, such as churches and private schools.

The other option (called Alternative 6) 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. Vacant land owners pay less money ($37 per parcel) under this option because a fire on a property without a structure would cost less to serve. This is projected to collect $4.6 million of the total $5.3 million cost. The $762,000 gap is due to land owned by exempt organizations.

During this meeting, Council had asked staff to run scenarios combining the Council members’ input, 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.

“This is the first step of many steps we’re going to go through over many months to create a fire district,” Cobb said during Monday’s meeting.

The city has a page on its website dedicated to the Fire Assessment District. To watch Monday night’s discussion on the fire tax, jump to the 22:00 time stamp.

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