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St. Johns County--Fire Tax Increase is in interest of Safety

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  • St. Johns County--Fire Tax Increase is in interest of Safety

    Editorial

    Sunday editorial: St. Johns County fire tax hike hinges on safety


    For the first time in six years, St. Johns County taxpayers will pay more property taxes.

    About a half-mill increase in the county fire district tax rate is effective Oct. 1: 1.125 mills up from 0.675 mills.

    The tax in the 2004 fiscal year will be $112.50 on a $125,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption. If the tax had remained the same as 2003, 0.675 mills, the tax would have been $67.50.

    The only county taxpayers who don't pay the fire tax are those in the city of St. Augustine. They pay about 1.85 mills of the 6.6 mills in city property taxes for its full-time fire department, says Mark Litzinger, city comptroller.

    The county fire tax increase is a matter of safety, says Joe Vonasek, county's budget director.

    The county must move forward on the Florida Administrative Code's rule of two in/two out when it comes to the number of firefighters at the scene of a fire. The rule means when there are two firefighters inside a burning building, two must be outside to ensure help if anything happens to the two inside.

    St. Johns County won't reach that goal until 2008, says Fire Chief Bobby Hall. In the coming year, it will get close.

    Vonasek says the increase allows the hiring of 24 more firefighters. Hall says there will be at least three full-time firefighters on it.

    Hall says the county can no longer rely on the Band-Aid of several years ago, the cross training of its paramedics and emergency medical technicians as firefighters to fulfill the two in/two out rule.

    When the rescue unit assigned to a station is not on a call, four full-time firefighters are the first response.

    But when the rescue unit is on a call of its own, the county is down to two full-time firefighters on the first-response truck.

    If the county did not have to adopt the two in/two out rule, taxpayers would pay less in the coming year.

    General property taxes are going down from 6.157 mills to 6.022 mills on the $369 million county operating budget, and there are slight drops in the millage for the street lighting districts in Vilano Beach and St. Augustine South.

    To reduce the general property tax rate, the county cut about $15 million from its departmental budget requests, says Vonasek. For example, gone are: the $1.5 million extension of the county pier at St. Augustine Beach, a $430,000 boat ramp, a $500,000 clubhouse at the county golf course, and $5 million for land acquisition for conservation and environmental protection.

    "These would be nice, but they are not safety related or statutorily required," Vonasek says.

    The county also cut $1.4 million in general operating expenses including consulting services and travel, he said.

    Could the county have made deeper cuts to keep the fire tax increase from being an increase? Perhaps.

    But this is a county where the population has grown and where new growth has been paid for with impact fees on new construction. Those fees were then used for a variety of county necessities.

    But impact fees cannot pay for people, Vonasek says. "The county can use impact fees to build fire stations ... buy trucks ... and equipment."

    As residents complained at Tuesday budget hearing, Commission Chairman Jim Bryant says, "We are taxpayers, also, and we don't take this job lightly."

    In the 2002 fiscal year, the county's fire-related calls were 12,091. In the fiscal year that ends Tuesday, the county is expected to have answered 12,309 calls, Hall says. Fire calls make up about 20 percent of the county's fire-rescue service, he says.

    No elected official wants to raise taxes without good reason. We don't want to see tax money raised without careful thought on how it's spent. We would prefer the county have made deeper cuts elsewhere.

    But it's hard not to support a tax increase when safety is the issue.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

  • #2
    St. Johns 'fire tax' to double department
    As St. Johns County Fire and Rescue officials transition from a volunteer work force to paid professionals, the county saw a 6 percent increase in overall property taxes to pay for the upgrade in service.


    This week, county commissioners voted unanimously to raise the aggregate millage rate from 6.663 to 7.006 in the final budget for fiscal 2004. The tax goes into effect next month.

    Joe Vonasek, director of management and budget for the county, said that increase caused the overall property tax hike but without it, the county would have experienced a tax decrease for fiscal 2004.

    The funds will go to hiring 24 new firefighters, building a new fire station and replacing aged fire engines.

    Vonasek said the augmented department aims to implement the National Fire Protection Association's "two-in-two-out" rule, which says every firefighter who enters a building must be accompanied by another and that for each firefighter in a structure, one must be waiting outside as a backup. Implementing the rule will require doubling the force, he said.

    The tax increase does not affect St. Augustine residents, who are served by a separate fire department.



    © 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.
    09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
    ------------------------------
    IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
    "Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
    BMI Investigator
    ------------------------------
    The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.

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