Assessment vs. millage for fire, EMS services

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County's lower property values, rising exemptions bring question of who pays

By Lou Elliott Jones, Editor

When home values skyrocketed in the housing binge that started in the 1990s and continued until  2008, property owners found themselves facing higher annual property tax bills.

Levy County was no exception.

As a result of these forces, fewer and fewer of the county's homeowners were paying enough in property taxes to support the fire and ambulance services they wanted and needed. 

Across the state the drive was on at the ballot box to rein in property taxes and spending by local and state governments. As a result homeowners got relief from rising values with the “Save Our Home” rule that said assessments could rise no more than the rate of the federal Comsumer Price Index, and capped it at 3 percent in any one year. 

Homeowners had a $25,000 exemption on the first $25,000 of value. But four years ago the voters approved a second $25,000 exemption for the $50,000-$75,000 of value of properties worth that much. 

In addition there are various other exemptions such as $500 for widows and widowers ($500), blind persons ($500) and disabled homeowners. If a person is quadriplegic they receive a total exemption. Those with a total disability and income of less than $14,500 a year are also exempt from paying any property tax. 

There are also exemptions for veterans ranging from $5,000 for a partially disabled veteran up to a total exemption to those Florida residents who were disabled in combat, to those who have total and permanent service connected disability. 

Two years ago the voters approved an exemption for members of the military deployed overseas in operations specified by the state Legislature, such as Operation Enduring Freedom in Iraq.

There's also a local option homestead exemption of up to $50,000 that cities and counties can add for those over 65. 

This fall there is an amendment to extend the veterans disability exemption from just those who were Florida residents when they entered service to any combat-disabled veteran currently living in the state.

Other proposed amendments affecting property exemptions on the ballot include:

•  prohibit increases in the assessed value of homestead property if the fair market value of the property decreases and limits the annual assessment increases on non-homestead property;

• amends commercial and non-homestead property taxes

• authorizes the legislature to totally or partially exempt surviving spouses of military veterans or first responders who died in the line of duty from paying property taxes;

• provides an exemption from ad valorem taxes levied by local governments on tangible personal property that's value is greater than $25,000 but less than $50,000; and

• Authorizes counties and municipalities to offer additional tax exemptions on homes of low-income seniors.

With all of the exemptions already in place and more being proposed, it brings the question of how local governments are to fund fire and EMS without raising property taxes — the millage. And how to get every property owner to pay their fair share for the services. 

One way is by assessments tied to specific services, such a road maintenance, emergency medical service, fire, water and sewer service and libraries. 

Currently Levy County charges $40 for fire and $75 for EMS assessments. The commission is considering a proposal to raise the EMS assessment to $119 and the fire assessment to $110.

But those do not cover the cost of operating the systems. 

The Levy County Commission annually spends general fund money — which comes from property taxes — to cover the EMS and fire operations. In the 2011 fiscal year the county had to kick in from property tax collections, about $500,000 to the EMS and $376,000 to the fire fund, according to a proposed budget document for the 2012-2013 budget. 

It is projected that in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 the county will have to spend $412,903 to cover the shortfall in the $4,960,742 EMS budget and $238,166 to cover the shortfall in the $2,283,140 fire budget if assessments stay the same. 

The commission's point man on the issue has been Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 2) who in a recent letter to the editor said because 55 percent of the residents pay under $200 property tax, that left 45 percent of the residents to shoulder the load of supporting the vital services. 

While he voted to raise the property tax from 7.8114 to 8.5759 mills and the proposed increase in assessments, he said he does not favor charging those maximum rates. 

The higher proposed rates, have been used as a starting point for the commissioners to have a discussion with citizens about the role of who pays the bill and who does not for service. 

In 2008, then Commissioner Danny Stevens, now the commission chair, said the problem with the assessments is that they were not paying the bills and residents needed to decide whether they wanted higher property taxes or higher millages.

He, like the other commissioners, has indicated that he favors the millage because too many county residents, 15 percent, pay no property taxes but expect the services to be delivered.