May 7th, 2010 11:32 PM by Sherry Lee
By Jennifer Sorentrue Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Posted: 1:00 p.m. Tuesday, April 6, 2010
When Palm Beach County voters go to the polls in August, they will be asked to approve a penny sales tax increase to pay for fire rescue services, if county commissioners get their way.
The commission on Tuesday voted to add the question to the Aug. 24 primary election ballot. At least six other cities and towns that have their own fire departments must also sign off on the measure, before it can officially be put to a countywide vote.
The measure would boost the sales tax to 7 cents per dollar. The increase, county leaders say, could help shift the rising cost of fire rescue service from homeowners to other residents and visitors. It is expected to generate $188 million a year, which would be divided among the county's 12 fire departments.
"It is just shifting," Commissioner Jess Santamaria said. "It is not increasing taxes… It is a way of balancing things and making it more equitable."
Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Chief Steve Jerauld said the increase would not generate additional revenue for the department. Residents in the unincorporated sections of the county and cities that receive county fire rescue service could see the special property tax rate they pay for fire protection fall by as much as half, if the measure is approved by voters, Jerauld has said.
But a final analysis showing exactly how much those residents would save in property taxes and pay in additional sales taxes has not been completed, officials said.
And it is unclear what impact it would have on the property tax bills of residents living in cities and towns with their own fire rescue departments, including West Palm Beach, Palm Beach Gardens and Boca Raton.
"This could very well, at least in a municipality, end up not being a swap but an increase," said Commissioner Steven Abrams, who voted against the measure with Commissioner Jeff Koons.
Dominic Calabro, president of the nonpartisan government watchdog group Florida TaxWatch, said he is concerned that local governments won't follow through with promises to reduce their property tax rates to make up for the added sales tax expense.
"In most cases, it's a new-revenue grab," Calabro said. "...I've never seen where the property tax didn't go back to where it once was.... We're concerned that they won't actually do what they say they're going to do."
Commissioners in February asked county administrators to research the change, at the request of Commissioner Karen Marcus.
If approved by voters, the increase would tax effect Jan. 1. Currently, the county's sales tax is six and a half cents. But, since a half-cent sales tax for school construction is set to expire in December, the additional penny, if approved by voters, would bring the county's sales tax to 7 cents.
Under the proposal, the fire-rescue surcharge would not expire.
Sales tax revenue collected as a result of the measure would be divided among the county's 12 fire departments based on a complex formula that evaluates each department's expenses over the past five years. Homeowners would not see any savings on this year's property tax bill. Instead, the additional sales tax revenue would be banked for nine months, and the savings would be applied to homeowners' 2011 property tax bills, county officials said.
Marcus made Tuesday's motion in favor of taking the issue to voters in the August primary, instead of the November general election. Primary elections tend to have smaller turnout than general elections.
Marcus said she wanted an August vote on the sales tax out of concerned there were too many other issues on the general election ballot.
"It is just going to be a huge, huge ballot," Marcus said. "I think it gives another opportunity for people to actually understand and learn what it is."
Staff Writer George Bennett contributed to this story.Jennifer_Sorentrue@pbpost.com