A possible fire fee rate got the first of two approvals it will need from the Oviedo City Council Monday night after some twists and turns in the discussion, including the idea of putting the fee on the next ballot.
The Council chose a methodology (called Alternative 2) that would charge the same rate – $212 per 2,125 square feet of building area – to all properties with structures. Vacant land owners would get a bill for 15% of that base cost, per 11,300 square feet of land. The fractioned price is due to the decreased cost of providing fire service to properties without structures, according to the city.
The fee would be implemented in phases, starting at 60%. It’s projected to collect $4.1 million in the first year, which is $1.2 million less than the $5.7 million projected 2023 fire department budget for service within the city limits. The total projected fire department budget for 2023 is $7.2 million, which includes services provided outside of city limits, which cannot be included in the fee.
The amount recovered is expected to increase by 10% each year as the fire department’s budget projections grow until it reaches 100% in 2027, with a goal of collecting that year’s full fire budget (less the cost of service outside the city) of $6.9 million.
This methodology would put more of the fee’s burden on city residents, compared to the other methodology that was considered – Alternative 6, which would weigh costs for different classes of property based on historical demand for fire protection services. This is the alternative the majority of the Council favored during the last work session, which is a meeting where the Council can hash out big issues without voting.
Councilwoman Natalie Teuchert, who had been in favor of Alternative 6, said she was afraid that the Council would not reach consensus on the fee’s rate and that it might not pass, which is why she was willing to compromise, voting for Alternative 2. Monday was one of the last chances the Council had to start the approval process in order to count the fee in the next budget cycle.
The premise for this fee is to provide a dedicated funding source for fire services. Currently, the city’s fire protection services are funded through the general fund, which is fueled by city property taxes. City officials said this fee will create funding that cannot be affected by the economy or rules the state enacts that affect the way municipalities collect taxes; and that other city departments have been underfunded over the years to preserve public safety funding.
Teuchert said 29 employees have left the city in the last six months and that the remaining employees are “overworked and underpaid.”
“There’s a point where it’s more expensive to not have money and we’re there. We’re losing money having to train employees who quit within the first year. We’re losing the wealth of knowledge when we have people who have worked here for more than five years quit,” Teuchert said, adding that those two groups make up the majority of those leaving city jobs.
“I don’t think we should put this off. I just brought up the staffing issues and are we really going to delay that again? Are we going to lose all of our employees? Because we’re heading that way.”
Mayor Megan Sladek, who was also staunchly in favor of Alternative 6, said she was willing to vote for Alternative 2 if the Council would agree to allow the voters to decide on whether or not to implement it during the next election cycle.
When the idea did not move forward, Sladek was the sole dissenter in the 4-1 vote.
“We’ve got four in favor and I’m the lone person hoping we could do better,” she said. “The process was marvelous, so I stand by what the Council just decided.”
After the meeting, Sladek said she’d met with military veterans over the weekend who said they’d have to choose between buying medications and paying their taxes if they had to pay additional fees.
“That’s a concern for me,” she said.
But Sladek said comments from real estate broker Dave Axel, made during the public comment period of the meeting, will help her explain to her constituents why the Council adopted the alternative.
Axel argued that residential property values make up 80% of the total property value in Oviedo and receive most of the benefit from fire protection services. According to the Seminole County Property Appraiser, residential property totaled $3.8 billion in property market value compared to $947 million in commercial property value in 2021.
“I understand the budgetary reason for the need to seek this revenue source and I’m completely supportive of the implementation of a fire fee,” he told the Council. “What I’m concerned about, based on the direction from the last work session that Council gave staff, was the equitability of the method we’re looking at and absence of supportive data for that method.”
Under Alternative 6, the cost for owners of property with buildings on them would be, per 2,125 square feet of building area: $136 for residential properties with under 10 dwelling units, $513 for multi-family properties with 10 or more dwelling units and $429 for general service (commercial and industrial) and tax-exempt properties, with the exception of government buildings, public schools and common areas.
The Council sent a 25-year plan to the state for approval last month that condensed future growth in the city to four main areas, and included some flexibility for vertical growth. Axel said creating hefty fees for large buildings could adversely affect development in the downtown core areas, which include Oviedo on the Park and the historic downtown, where his clients, the Evans family, own about 28 acres of land.
“Oviedo is seeking to grow its population in a dense, vertical way, which means large buildings,” Axel said. “The amount of increase, if you go with number six without a cap [Alternative 6] is really, really big numbers that will have a chilling effect. And I’m so concerned about that.”
Councilman Keith Britton, who also favored Alternative 6 in previous meetings, said for an issue as important as this one, consensus on Council is very important to him. In order to try to create consensus he asked staff to analyze starting the fee at 40% instead of 60% but the idea did not gain traction.
“If you act as a Council that’s in sync with each other then that’s easier to explain,” he said, adding that four out of five was good enough for him.
Councilman Jeff Boddiford, who favored Alternative 2 all along, said he wanted the Council to continue exploring other options, looking to other cities’ best practices and revisit the fee’s methodology next year.
“I think the district is what we needed but did we pick the right methodology? I do think we need to explore other options that are out there,” he said.
Watch the full meeting below. To skip to the discussion related to the fire fee, go to marker 109:25.