Bill Foster reiterates support for Fire Readiness Fee

By on September 13, 2012

In his weekly forecast, Mayor Bill Foster laid out what his recommendations to the city council will be on Thursday during the public hearing for the 2013 budget, reports William Mansell of Patch.

Since the budgeting process began earlier this year, Foster said there would be some cuts in the budget, but in order to make sure the city has the same “look, smell and feel”, an increase in revenue was necessary.

Foster and the council have been exploring and have approved the parameters of a fire readiness fee that would generate around $10 million next year, which is roughly the city’s projected budget shortfall.

In Wednesday’s letter, Foster said he will include the fire tax and a small millage increase that would generate the same amount of property taxes from 2012. Since property values fell slightly, Foster is suggesting raising the millage to where the property tax revenues the city receives would be the same in 2013 as 2012.

Foster’s budget proposal has $2 million in budget cuts, which is less than the $3 million he was proposing earlier this year.

Below is Foster’s letter in its entirety. Today, the city council meeting begins at 3 p.m., with the public hearing on the 2013 budget scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

St. Petersburg, Florida’s fourth largest city, is truly one of America’s greatest cities – a demonstration of proper balance between a Major League city, and a city that celebrates its unique charm, art, culture, diversity, parks, neighborhoods, and a pristine waterfront. Ours is a grand city, over one hundred years in the making, and it is our responsibility to ensure St. Petersburg’s long term economic sustainability, public safety, and quality of life through essential employees who provide a high level of customer service.

The city has had an especially challenging time preparing a balanced budget over the last five years. This is the result of the reform and constitutional amendments on the state level, as well as a recessionary economy driving the city’s tax base down. With actual tax increases through 2007, the city’s ad valorem revenue was at an all-time high, totaling $104 million. Had property values held firm in subsequent years, the city would have seen an additional $100 million in ad valorem revenue alone. Obviously, that did not happen, and even with a modest rate increase for 2013, the city will yield around $70 million in ad valorem revenue.

As we have worked to develop the 2013 budget, we have seen excellent participation from citizens – unprecedented since my involvement with the city over the last 15 years. Nearly 6,000 people took the time to fill out surveys, and hundreds attended three public budget forums providing excellent feedback for me to use in determining priorities for the upcoming year. I heard the message loud and clear that in order to preserve the quality of life that defines St. Petersburg as the great city that is, cutting more and more city services was not the solution. St. Petersburg has continually decreased its millage rate over the past 25 years, and in the last 10 years, has reduced its workforce by 1/8th, including many managerial, professional and supervisory employees.

This year, I received support from both the citizens and City Council to include increased revenues in our budget, in addition to making sensible permanent reductions. I have submitted a balanced budget to the City Council, and it includes $2 million in budget cuts and service reductions. However, it also includes a new revenue source authorized by ordinance called a fire readiness fee.

Call it a fee, a tax, or an assessment, it requires every property owner in the city to pay something toward the maintenance of our current level of service. Property owners now paying zero will be asked to pay about $1 per week for city services. Those now on the tax rolls will see a mitigated impact with a fire fee versus straight millage rate increase. All monies generated from this source will be dedicated to fire services, which will free up monies from the general fund to help cover everything else – from parks, pools and recreation centers to libraries and summer youth training and employment.

My budget recommends a $50 base assessment per parcel, with a variable assessment of 21 cents per $1,000 of parcel improvement. I will also recommend an exemption for all parcels owned by tax exempt non-profits. Finally, I will recommend a millage at the “roll forward” rate of 6.0351, which in simple terms will generate the same revenue as our current tax year, or approximately $69.6 million in tax revenue. To keep this in perspective, my police budget alone exceeds $90 million.

Preparing a budget is not an exact science, and my budget team uses every available resource to forecast and predict revenues and expenses for an entire year. Throughout the year, any change to the amount of goods sold (sales tax), intensity of a season and weather factors (utility tax), or a price for goods (fuel), requires us to make mid-year corrections, and this year was no exception. My goal was to maintain a hiring freeze, doing more with less, and without a noticeable impact to the service delivery. People noticed. We were doing less with less, and being lean to begin the year, I had to fill many of the positions to maintain our high performance standards and quality customer service.

This year’s budget takes all of these factors into account, and utilizing new budget software, allowed us to look years ahead to ensure that decisions made today will create an environment of continuous improvement and services that meet our needs to enhance our quality of life well into the future.”

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