The Oviedo City Council approved the creation of a fire tax district on Monday night, making it possible for the city to create a separate fire tax for the residents of Oviedo.
The Council is expected to set a tax rate and methodology in March. However, Council members have reiterated several times during the past two meetings on the matter that they could decide not to set a rate at all and then the tax would never happen.
“This is a vote on whether to create the framework that we might later use to implement a fee or a tax,” Mayor Megan Sladek said before the Council voted on creating the district.
Here’s the public meeting schedule surrounding the potential fire tax and the city budget. This schedule is subject to change.
“No more fat to trim”
Currently, the city’s fire protection services are funded through the general fund, which is fueled by city property taxes. 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.
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“I call it the gap. It’s the gap between our revenues and our ability to pay our first responders,” Councilman Keith Britton said.
“We did a lot of things to try to keep our taxes low and essentially what we’ve done is we’ve subsidized our ability to perform our capital improvements and our … infrastructure to cover the gap between first responders.”
In addition to this, City Manager Bryan Cobb said that the state keeps enacting new rules that limit the city’s ability to create revenue, such as the Save Our Homes tax exemption in Florida, which caps the assessed value of a home for tax collecting purposes at 3% annually.
“This district is a measure to get us more financially independent from the state of Florida,” Cobb said. “There are at least three bills right now sitting in the state Legislature that are geared toward limiting the city’s ability to have revenue. … If we create the district and the assessment, we would create a dedicated funding source for fire protection.”
Sladek said that although the city has always managed to fully fund its first responders with dwindling revenues, that might not always be the case.
“We have done it [unfunded other city expenses] for so many years that we’re really to the spot where there’s no more fat to trim, and we really need to show that we have a dedicated stream so we have certainty that we’re not in a position where we cannot fund our first responders,” she said.
If approved, the tax aims to collect $5.3 million – the city’s projected 2023 fire department budget. Ambulance service cannot be included in the funds collected through the fire tax district because those services are not tied to property values. The same goes for police services. The city’s budget planning for the fiscal year 2022-2023 will begin in June.
Council members asked for public input on the rate and methodology for the possible tax.
“Tune in over the next few meetings because we do want a lot of input,” Sladek said. “There’s just this giant range of ways we can calculate what that will ultimately be or if that will ultimately be.”
Here’s the contact information for the Council members.
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.
The city has a page on its website dedicated to the Fire Assessment District.
Watch the Council’s conversation on the fire tax district by jumping to the 52:46 time stamp.
There is a clarification in the report Oviedo takes steps toward fire tax, which published on Feb. 9. At the Feb. 7 Oviedo City Council meeting, the fire tax district received first approval, not the actual tax.
The article had gone on to state that the actual tax had not been approved, but we felt that the original wording in the opening line of the report may have been confusing and we wanted to make sure our readers understood exactly what happened at the meeting.