New assessment to begin in October

FORT WALTON BEACH — Despite ardent opposition voiced by more than 15 residents, including a handful of local businessmen, the City Council voted 6-1 Tuesday to approve an ordinance to establish a fire fee.

“You have voted for us to do what’s best for this city,” said Fort Walton Beach Councilwoman Amy Jamieson, who made the motion to adopt the ordinance.

Her next statement about the council doing what the voters want was followed by “No!” shouted by several audience members in the packed council chambers.

Councilman David Schmidt cast the lone vote against the ordinance. He agreed with many people who earlier called for the council to table the ordinance until the city notified the public in writing of the fee.

The fee will help the city move forward versus staying status quo, Councilman Kirby Locklear said.

But he also noted before the vote that if the fee was adopted, “some of us won’t be on the dais after the next election.”

The fee will take effect Oct. 1, the start of fiscal 2020, and will last for one year before needing council approval to remain in effect. It will be included on city utility customers' monthly bills.

The council will vote Sept. 24 on a resolution that sets the fire fee rates.

The anticipated rates are $160 per residential unit, 17 cents per square foot for each commercial property and 4 cents per square foot for each industrial/warehouse property. Each residential unit would be billed $13.33 per month for the potential $160 charge.

The council doesn’t plan to charge the fee to schools, churches, nonprofits and other institutional properties.

The various fire fees are projected to 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 will 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 fees will 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 create a new law enforcement zone in the Kenwood neighborhood.

“Everyone says ‘Cut something’ ” from the budget instead of assessing the fee, Councilman MG Moran said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Show us something to cut.”

A man in the audience replied, “Shut down the golf course.”

At the start of the discussion, local businessman Bob Lee said the city’s results being sought via the fire fee should be obtained through the normal taxing process.

“You simply need to man up as a council” and take action “to raise our taxes,” Lee said.

A man who said he was speaking for the 10 or so hotels on U.S. Highway 98 in the city said the fee charged to those businesses will just get passed down to visitors, many of whom will decide to stay elsewhere.