The City Council plans to vote Tuesday on whether to adopt an ordinance to establish the fee.
FORT WALTON BEACH — Some residents are not taking the city’s proposed fire fee lightly.
For example, if the fee is adopted, “My expenses to owning property in the city (ad valorem + “fee”) will result in a 30% increase (on) the checks I write just to live in my house,” resident Phil Gallmeier said in a recent email to the Daily News. “And that base included school and county. If I include just city tax it’s a 100% increase.”
The Fort Walton Beach City Council voted 6-1 on Aug. 27 approved the first reading of an ordinance to establish the fee effective Oct. 1, the start of fiscal year 2020. It plans to vote Tuesday on whether to adopt the ordinance.
The anticipated fees would be $160 per residential unit, 17 cents per square foot for commercial properties and 4 cents per square foot for industrial/warehouse properties. The fee would be included on property owners’ monthly utility bills, with each residential property owner being billed $13.33 per month for the potential $160 charge.
Schools, churches, nonprofits and other institutional properties would be exempt from the fee.
If finalized, the various fire fees would generate about $2.5 million annually for Fire Department expenses, which currently total $4.8 million and are paid for with property tax revenue, state funding and other sources.
Unlike ad valorem taxes, the fees would provide a stable revenue stream unaffected by fluctuating property values or property tax exemptions, according to city officials.
Property tax money freed-up by the fire fees would be spent on improvements such as the hiring of six firefighters, the restoration of the deputy fire chief position that was lost many years ago and the hiring of three police officers to form a new law enforcement zone in the Kenwood neighborhood.
Gallmeier wrote that it seemed as though the fire fee, if adopted, would lead to a 52% increase in the Fire Department’s annual budget. And he wasn’t aware of any discussion of decreasing the city’s ad valorem tax to offset the cost of the possible fee.
When asked about these issues, city spokesman Doug Rainer on Wednesday said the proposed FY ’20 Fire Department budget is almost $5.9 million, an increase of a little more than $1 million from this budget year, and the proposed fiscal 2020 millage rate is the rollback rate of 5.63 mills.
The current millage rate is 5.76 mills. Because of increased property values, the rollback rate maintains the same property tax revenue as this year.
Another city resident who opposes the potential fire fee recently shared with the Daily News some correspondence between Ocean City-Wright Fire Control District Fire Chief William Lord and Fort Walton Beach officials in August.
In an Aug. 7 letter to the City Council, Lord suggested a merger of the district with the city Fire Department could lead to lower costs, specifically for fire protection services.
Several days later, Fort Walton Beach City Manager Michael Beedie wrote back to Lord to say while the city “has asked for this collaborative effort for many years amongst all local fire departments,” it is in the middle of its annual budgeting process and would need to hold off on any merger discussions until after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Lord quickly replied that while fire district officials would be happy to talk later about the possible merger, “if your new budget results in a significant increase in the costs associated with your fire protection services, it may be a detriment to this discussion.
“A partnership under that scenario may be cost prohibitive rather than beneficial to our citizens.”
The resident who shared the correspondence about the possible merger told the Daily News that Beedie had “every opportunity to at least discuss this with the council to potentially save the citizens some money. Instead, obviously Mr. Beedie had what he felt was a sure-fire way to raise a quick 2.5 million from the taxpayers.
“The council, through Mr. Beedie, is bound to be good stewards for the Fort Walton Beach taxpayer, and after reviewing these letters (council members) are clearly not doing their jobs. In closing, this “fee” is no more than a tax.”
When asked to respond, Rainer said the proposed fiscal 2020 budget incorporates all of the council’s policy decisions made at the July 16 budget policy meeting, along with information discussed at the Aug. 26 budget workshop.