Miami-Dade may answer fire budget alarm with new fee
By Risa Polansky
In an area where "fire fee" has become a four-letter word in a City of Miami debacle, Miami-Dade commissioners are considering a new charge to prevent an impending financial fire in the county department.
The fee for the fire rescue district is not a sure thing and if passed probably wouldn't burn residents as the city's illegal charge did.
Proceeds would go only for fire suppression services — not emergency medical services — to keep it legal and avoid the years of litigation, botched settlements and complicated reimbursements with which the city is still dealing.
Still, county commissioners feared spending tax funds on a consultant, then potentially charging the fee, could spark resentment in a tough economy.
At a Health and Public Safety Committee meeting Monday, they resisted shelling out more than $1 million for a consultant to study and structure a fee.
They agreed instead to consider a resolution expressing their intent to keep open the door to levying a fire assessment.
The action doesn't necessarily mean a fee is imminent.
But if the county wants the option to impose the charge next fiscal year, it must meet state deadlines soon, administrators said.
"The reason this is before you is that so the board ultimately will have options later in the budget process," County Manager George Burgess said, adding later that "nothing you do today is remotely binding. What you're doing now is just teeing up the method for collecting the fee."
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue could face budget shortfalls beginning in 2010, Chief Herminio Lorenzo said.
The department relies on ad valorem taxes for nearly all funding — more than 85% for the past five fiscal years — and with property tax collections falling, outlook is grim.
Mr. Lorenzo cited three options for closing impending gaps: keep the county's fire district millage where it is and cut service beginning in 2010; eventually raise millage up to the state cap; or impose a fire fee.
The county could consider two ways to assess the charge.
One would impose a flat fee for residential units and a per-square-foot charge on other properties. An "enhanced method" could mean variable rates depending on home size, according to county documents, which used an example of a $10 annual fee.
Sixteen Florida counties — and 27 municipalities in Broward alone — charge fire assessment fees.
Miami-Dade commissioners hesitated.
Carlos Gimenez, former City of Miami manager and fire chief, pointed out that "when we did this in the City of Miami, the city was in a financial crisis."
The county department isn't yet.
José "Pepe" Diaz thanked the administration for proactively proposing a solution to looming budget issues but said that in today's tight economy constituents may not understand why officials would slap them with another charge.
"We're caught between the rock and the hard place when we do these types of decisions."
Still, commissioners supported voting on a resolution of intent to keep the fee option open and sending Mr. Burgess to meet with consultants to negotiate a better price.
A revised consultant contract could come before the commission in January.