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NPR not ready to impose fire special assessment

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NEW PORT RICHEY -

With another tight budget year looming, New Port Richey City Council members talked about imposing a fire special assessment as an emergency financing tool, but aren’t in a hurry to put one on the books.

“Put it in our toolbox,” Councilman Bill Phillips suggested during a work session. The city could develop the framework now, but not charge anyone. In five years or so, the city could elect to begin assessing residents once economic conditions might improve.

Most city council members were lukewarm toward the fire assessment concept.

The timing might not be right for the added assessment, Mayor Bob Consalvo said. Only last year, the city raised its stormwater and street light fees.

The stormwater fee alone went up 91 percent, to about $77, to help trim deficits.

Pasco Property Appraiser Mike Wells, however, delivered more bad news for the city last week. Property tax rolls in New Port Richey declined $21 million over the last year, even though overall Pasco County property values rose fractionally. The city of Port Richey saw its total property value decline by a smaller amount, $7 million.

Land O’Lakes and Wesley Chapel are showing improvement, Wells said. “It’s the big housing developments in West Pasco, the older ones, going down. So any growth we’re seeing is being neutralized.”

In April, before Wells released the property value figures, city council members learned of a potential deficit of $700,000 in the next city budget. That alone could wipe out gains from about $1 million in transfers from utility funds.

With many question marks still hanging over the city’s fiscal 2014 budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1, city council members asked attorney Christopher B. Roe, of Tallahassee law firm Bryant Miller Olive, to explain some assessment options.

Courts usually uphold special assessments if the methodology is set up correctly, Roe said.

The city’s current assessments appear on tax bills, Roe noted. Another option includes direct billing of residents. Either way, the county tax collector can serve as an enforcer.

Roe cited a fire services assessment for Springfield, a Panhandle town east of Panama City with nearly 9,000 residents. Assessments there are based on the value of improvements to properties, plus a standard rate per parcel.

Springfield is a smaller city than New Port Richey, Councilman Jeff Starkey noted. In addition, Springfield was staving off a dramatic jump in its ISO fire rating, to 10 from 6, which could have caused insurance premiums there to soar 30 percent.

So the Springfield assessment paid for itself since the fire rating remained the same. New Port Richey, on the other hand, has an ISO fire rating of 3.

“I don’t think the time is right,” Councilwoman Judy Debella Thomas said about a fire services assessment.

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