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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Commissioner, fire chief square off on ad valorem tax

Anna Maria City Commissioner Duke Miller has vowed to lead the charge against the ad valorem tax referendum requested by the West Manatee Fire & Rescue District that will be on the Aug. 31 ballot for district voters.

Although the district is only requesting a maximum millage rate of 1.0 mills for funding, Miller said using ad valorem taxes to fund the district's budget shortfall is unfair.

"It's not equitable," said Miller. "To say that I should pay more in fire taxes because my home is valued higher than another is absurd. Do I pay a higher rate per kilowatt hour for electricity? Do I pay more per gallon of water consumed?" he asked.

The ad valorem tax would be in addition to the current assessment, which is based upon square footage of a structure. The assessment system, claimed Miller, is fair.

But a house with the same square footage as Miller's in another area of the district might be worth just half of his house, simply because Miller lives on Anna Maria Island, where property values are considerably higher than many areas of the district on the mainland.

"Should I pay twice as much for the same service?"

If the district has a funding problem because of the assessment cap imposed by the state legislature, then the district "should present the issue to our legislative delegation and prevail upon them to increase the cap."

That's better than the "unfair plan you are advocating."

Miller said he understood the need for the WMFR budget to be increased to meet the "two-in, two-out" rule, but is wasn't too long ago that the Island had an all-volunteer fire department. Now, the WMFR budget is more than $3 million, and growing annually.

"All we're asking is that the legislature change one tax in lieu of layering on another - one that is clearly inequitable by anyone's standard," Miller concluded.

West Manatee Fire & Rescue Chief Andy Price noted that "no matter which method of taxation" (assessment or ad valorem) is used, "there will always be people who feel the other method is more fair depending on their own circumstance."

A few years ago, a number of residents approached the WMFR board and asked them to change from assessment to ad valorem, said Price. At that time, the board did not think the idea feasible, but "times have changed."

The fact, said Price, is that most fire districts in Florida are no longer using the assessment method for funding, but have opted for ad valorem taxes.

No matter what the WMFR board does, someone will be upset, he said. "We will never make everyone happy as you well know, being a city commissioner, but you must make the right decision even though it may not be the most popular."

Price also observed that two years ago, several local fire districts tried to get an assessment increase through the legislature, but Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed the bills, saying tax increases should be dealt with at the local level.

"Therefore," said Price, "these districts were forced to go to referendum to get the ad valorem tax approved, which three [area] districts already have."

The chief also said that most fire districts in the state use ad valorem taxation for revenue, and the average rate is 2.5 mils. Because of limited growth in the district, the assessment method does not provide enough revenue each year, he noted.

With the passage of new state and federal standards for fire service, such as the "two-in, two-out" rule, "We are faced with increasing the number of firefighters needed for each fire truck. This means we must hire additional personnel to meet these standards as well as meet new OSHA safety standards adopted by the state," Price claimed.

It would be nice if the WMFR district covered only Anna Maria Island, he added, but it doesn't.

"Most people think we cover only the Island but we actually provide service up to 34th Street West in Bradenton (just west of Manatee High School) and south to 27th Avenue, including all of Cortez and Tidy Island. For an area this size and population, the cost for fire service is low," he said. Approximatey 40,000 people live in the district, and only about 8,000 are on the Island.

But times have changed since Price's mother and father were volunteers to the Island fire service.

"I have been a part of this district for more than 25 years and was here when it was all volunteer and have seen and been a part of the change from volunteer to career firefighters," said Price.

The decision to seek an ad valorem tax for fire service was not an easy one, but the Island has changed and property values have skyrocketed, he said. That forced most of the volunteers to move off the Island.

In addition, said Price, training standards for volunteers have increased dramatically, and fewer people are willing to go through the extensive training to be a firefighter unless it is a career.

"This fire board has been very fiscally responsive to its job and has balanced the needs of providing quality firefighting services with levying reasonable taxes," said Price. "I believe they have done an admirable job," he added.

The August referendum calls for a 1.0 mil cap on ad valorem taxes for WMFR. A similar referendum in March 2004 would have allowed the district up to a 3.75 millage rate, but was defeated in the district by 128 votes.

Price has said he anticipates that if the present referendum passes, the district would need only a .5 millage rate to meet its obligations.

If adopted, the 1.0 millage rate could not be changed except by another referendum to district voters.