The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: City makes early moves toward fire assessment

By Jane Smith

Delray Beach property owners may have to pay a fire assessment fee in the next budget year under a proposal the City Commission approved by a 3-2 vote on Dec. 11.

The assessment amount depends on the type of property.

Single-family home and condo owners would have to pay $80.88 in the first year. Commercial, industrial and warehouse owners would be assessed a fee per square foot, with commercial owners paying the highest fee at $11.77 per 100 square feet. Owners of vacant land would pay $59.81 per parcel.

The commission will decide later this year whether churches, nonprofits and charities will need to pay the assessment.

In October, the city agreed to pay $23,613 to Stantec Consulting Services of St. Augustine to develop the preliminary fire assessment, recommended by city Fire Chief Neal de Jesus.

At the time, the city, along with others statewide, was facing a possible revenue loss to an extra $25,000 homestead exemption that was on the November ballot. The ballot amendment failed.

The Fire Department had also been promised four extra positions by the previous City Commission.

The Dec. 11 vote gave Stantec the go-ahead to finish the assessment report for $21,380. Another approximately $28,000 is needed in July for a first-class mailing about the fire assessment to all Delray Beach property owners.

If approved by the city, the fire assessment would appear as a separate item on the property owner’s county tax bill, payable in November.

The resolution had to be adopted by Jan. 1 in order to get on the county property appraiser’s list of non-ad valorem assessments.

Delray Beach property owners will have two more opportunities to address the commission on the assessment — in July when the tentative tax rate is approved and then in September when the city tax rate has a second reading.

On Dec. 11, five people spoke about the assessment. Four were against it, including Christina Morrison, a commercial real estate broker, who lives in the Tropic Isle section of Delray Beach.

“You reviewed it in 2012 and found it not practical,” Morrison said. “Please put it aside and deny it.”

Ron Gilinsky, who is retired and volunteers for many city events, was for the assessment. “We need new equipment for the Fire Department,” he said.

Delray Beach should start with a modest assessment and gradually increase it until the assessment covers the full cost of fire services, Erick van Malssen of Stantec said.

“The 100 percent cap fully funds the Fire Department and won’t fluctuate with the whims of the economy,” van Malssen said. That would translate to about $25 million for fire services, resulting in a $500 fire assessment for home and condo owners.

The fire assessment can be used only for firefighting purposes that benefit the taxable property, van Malssen said. The medical rescue services that benefit people must not be included, he said.

For $4 million in the first year, the city Fire Department would receive four firefighters who would be paid about $401,044, an increase in existing pension costs of $340,464, additional pension burden of $502,051, vehicle replacement program of $750,000 and station rehab/replacement of $2 million. 

Van Malssen did not explain how Delray Beach could separate its firefighting from emergency medical services costs after the fee was assessed.

Boca Raton and Boynton Beach have fire assessment fees that do not include emergency medical services, van Malssen said. Boca Raton assessses $135 per household; Boynton Beach’s fee is $120.

Commissioner Ryan Boylston was for the assessment in order to fulfill the previous commission’s promise to add four firefighters. He also wants to see the city’s taxes cut by $4 million — the amount the initial assessment would generate.

City Manager Mark Lauzier, however, did not recommend that large of a reduction.

“We don’t have a revenue problem,” said Mayor Shelly Petrolia, who voted against the assessment. “We have a spending problem.”

She said the city brought in $14 million more in property taxes for the current budget year  compared to the previous year and that there is often a mid-year budget adjustment showing millions unspent.

Petrolia was most concerned about the residents who live on fixed incomes and can’t afford to pay an assessment.

Commissioner Bill Bathurst also voted against the assessment. He’s concerned about rising rental rates along Atlantic Avenue in the downtown. Landlords would likely pass along the fire assessment to their tenants, he said. 

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