An analysis by TR of the fire service fee implemented by Leon county and the City of Tallahassee shows that low income property owners and renters are paying the same fire service fee as someone with a larger, more expensive dwelling.
This method results in a regressive ‘tax’ which means more money is leaving poorer neighborhoods than would if a traditional approach of paying for fire service was in place.
Given the demographics of our community, this also means that this approach disproportionately affects black neighborhoods.
These findings are of particular significance given the local debate on income inequality and the recent increase in the fire service fee approved by Leon county and the City of Tallahassee.
How did this policy get implemented? What is the financial impact of the fee on the economically challenged sections of our community? And, what are the politics behind this policy?
This is the first of a three part series that will focus on these questions and more.
Same Fire Service Fee for Different Sized Homes with Different Values
Instead of paying for fire services through property taxes, a fire service fee was established by the city commission on October 1, 1999. Leon County officials opted not to implement the fee for county residents, but rather, to continue its payment for fire services.
In October 2009, new rates were negotiated and approved by the city and county commissions. In addition, Leon County government adopted a fire service fee for county residents.
In 2015, a new study provided support for another increase, which raised an additional $8 million county-wide. Our detailed report can be found here.
For residential dwellings, the fee approach coupled with the new rates adopted by the City and County results in outcomes that raises serious questions about fairness.
For example, a 400 square-foot mobile home in Paradise Village valued at $11,000, a 1,000 square-foot home in Appalachee Ridge neighborhood valued at $50,000, and a 4,000 square-foot home in Betton Hills valued at $550,000 all pay the same $201 annual fire service fee. See comparison below.
All Three Properties Listed Below Pay the Same Fire Service Fee
And consider this: in a quadraplex with four 1,000 square feet apartments, as shown below, each renter pays $201 ($804 per building) while the owner of a 4,000 square-foot home pays $201.
Is the Fire Service Fee Equitable?
Common sense would say the costs associated with controlling a fire at an 800 square-foot mobile home would be less than extinguishing a fire at a 4,000 square-foot home in Betton Hills.
And in fact, the fire service fee study produced for the City recognizes this by establishing different rates for office buildings based on square footage.
For example, a commercial building under 2,000 square feet pays 50% less than a commercial building that is 4,000 square feet.
However, the City did not use this approach with residential dwellings, but most other local governments do consider size and value when financing fire service.
For example, in Gainesville, Florida 50% of fire service costs are raised by property taxes and 50% is funded by a fire service fee. The fire service fee component takes into account the size of the residential structure.
In addition, Gainesville offers payment options for those that face economic hardship and those that live in mobile homes. Get specific details here.
TR was told no such options exist in Tallahassee.
Also, during the middle of last year, the Lakeland City Council considered a fire service fee to fund 50% of fire service costs.
The proposed fee structure was based on the size of a residential dwelling. Ultimately, the fee approach was rejected by the City Council amid protests by citizens, the local Chamber and coverage by the Lakeland Ledger. Get more details here.
So why did our leaders elect this approach and what is the financial impact of the policy?
In our next report, we document how the fire serve fee approach implemented by our local government has resulted in millions of dollars leaving poor neighborhood when compared to the less regressive approach adopted by most other cities in Florida.