March 18th, 2010 10:56 AM by Sherry Lee
Palm Beach County firefighters are getting some traction on their top legislative priority: a local-option sales tax to pay for fire services.
A House committee passed the measure today to allow counties to ask voters via local referendums for a penny sales tax dedicated to fire-rescue departments. The bill has been getting approvals from Senate committees, too – a far better showing than the sales-tax idea had last year.
Palm Beach County has a special taxing district for its fire department, which is heavily reliant on property taxes. That’s left the department vulnerable, given property tax cuts in recent years and the dip in market values.
Counties would use the extra penny sales tax to lower the amount of property taxes funneled to fire services – creating a swap.
“Our funding source [property taxes] is starting to become unstable,” said Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Battalion Chief Ron Beasley, who traveled to Tallahassee to address the House Economic Development & Community Affairs Policy Council. “At some point, we realized we needed to diversity that funding source, just like you would stocks and bonds.”
Palm Beach County is pushing the issue, but the sales tax would be available to any fire department that got approval from a majority of voters.
Even though the penny tax has picked up several committee endorsements, it still might have an uphill climb to become law. For one, it has a $243,000 implementation cost to the state Department of Revenue – in a year when every dollar is being scrutinized. And a major issue is how counties would distribute the proceeds from the penny sales tax between county and city fire departments.