Life and politics from the Sunshine State's best city

Beach district asks residents to pay property taxes for fire service

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Voters in the Pinellas Suncoast Fire District will be asked an important question in the Nov. 8 election: Will you let the district collect a property tax on top of the existing fee to pay for fire service?

It’s a touchy issue for this area. Voters in the Suncoast District have historically turned down most requests for an increase in the fee. So asking for a tax on top of the fee would seem doomed from the start. But, Fire Chief Sal D’Angelo said it’s worth the challenge.

“They cannot disagree that we need the money,” D’Angelo said. “I’m just fighting for the residents of this district.”

Salvatore A_ D'Angelo III, Fire Chief
Fire Chief Sal D’Angelo

The Pinellas Suncoast District is one of four independent fire districts in Pinellas County. The district includes the beach municipalities of Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks, Indian Shores and the unincorporated Oakhurst area on the mainland.

Like the other independent districts, Suncoast is responsible for raising the money to provide fire service. Unlike the other areas, Suncoast does not collect a property tax. Instead, it charges a flat fire fee each year — $260 for residential properties. Commercial properties are charged $286 for a building up to 500 square feet and 20 cents for each additional square foot. The district also charges an impact fee of about $1 a square foot for new construction. Those costs have remained steady since 2008.

With 12,010 parcels and 11,906 buildings in the district, that brings in about $3.4 million a year for fire service. The department also provides emergency medical service, but that is funded separately through a countywide tax that’s overseen by Pinellas County.

That’s not enough, D’Angelo said. The district has been digging into reserves just to keep going. And there’s been no way to fill other needs, like a new ladder truck, a rescue truck, and fire equipment, including breathing apparatus and protective gear for the firefighters. The department also needs two new fire stations — Station 26 is in a building owned by Indian Shores and used for concessions. Station 28, in the Oakhurst area, is decades old and needs to be rebuilt to withstand hurricanes and serve as an emergency operations center and community center. Firefighters need to be hired and paid adequately.

So the district is asking taxpayers to approve a property tax rate capped at $3 per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable value. But the district only wants to impose part of that — 50 cents per thousand dollars of assessed, taxable value — at first. That would bring in an additional $1.2 million using today’s property values, according to district figures.

District officials say it makes sense to charge both a fee and a property tax. If they moved to a tax-only system, then owners of low-value properties would pay nothing for fire protection because their homes are worth less than the homestead exemptions. By using both, everyone pays something.

If voters turn down the proposal, D’Angelo said he’s going to have to make some difficult decisions.

“I’m going to have to balance personnel with capital” expenditures, he said.

For now, D’Angelo has been on an education tour of the district to explain the situation (state law bans him from urging people to vote one way or another). But, in the long run, he said, it’s up to voters to decide what they want.

“You’re going to get what you pay for,” D’Angelo said. “If you want mediocrity, you’re going to pay for mediocre. A higher level of service takes” more.

Latest from The Bay and the 'Burg

Go to Top