ST. PETERSBURG - It was an open hearing about fire service fees, but St. Petersburg's city council could have used firefighters to put out the fire in the eyes of residents furious about the proposal.
Mayor Bill Foster said in order to cover a $10 million budget shortfall, citizens need to share in the sacrifice. Rather than raise the millage rate for property taxes, Foster said he opted for a flat rate fee based on property values.
"I'm going to ask you to pay a dollar a week. That's all we ask," Foster said.
The fee structure would charge an initial $50 to all property owners per lot, and then another 23 cents for every thousand dollars of structure value on the land. That averages between 65 to 75 dollars for most residents, but more for valuable land.
"It's a regressive tax," said Father John Tapp of the Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. He said it unfairly burdens poorer people because it takes a much larger percentage out of their incomes than wealthy property owners.
"They're paying their own homeowner's tax. Then, if they have a fee imposed that's two taxes on them," Tapp said, noting that many of his church members are not rich. "It will be our people that will end up paying here so it's really a triple tax," he said.
The public hearing lasted for two hours as resident repeatedly denounced the fire service tax as punitive to the poor, and a break for the wealthy.
One resident told the city council the idea was downright discriminatory.
"Everyone calls themselves Christians but yet I see you try and put these fees on the poor people. If Jesus walked in this room right now he'd be embarrassed," he said.
Anthony Rawson, a renter living in St. Pete, said he views the fire fee as a another example of class warfare, with the rich winning.
"What I keep seeing is actually a battle where the rich are taking everything for themselves and letting all of the burdens for society roll down to the middle class and the poor," Rawson said.
At least one resident said he opposed giving any fee exemptions to non-profit groups and churches, which are already excluded from property taxes.
David McKalip, a St. Petersburg doctor, said the problem is not lower tax revenues because of the recession. Instead, he blamed government spending.
"You don't have a true budget shortfall. You have a leadership shortfall. You have a shortfall in common sense," McKalip said. "You have shortfall in honesty here on this city council."
A second public hearing on the budget is scheduled for September 27. The final budget is due October 1.
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