West Palm, facing budget shortfall, may triple fire fee

To help cover the city’s $8.4 million budget shortfall, West Palm Beach homeowners and businesses could see their annual fire assessment fee more than triple, under a proposal the finance director pitched this week to the City Commission.

Finance Director Jeff Green said the increase would reduce the projected deficit by about $5 million.

The assessment, adopted in 2008, is $25 for homes; business properties pay 1 cent to 10 cents per square foot, depending on the type of business. It exempts government property and 80 percent of non-profit groups.

Under Green’s proposal, the residential rate would jump to $85 per house; the per-square-foot rate would go from 3 cents to 10.2 cents for commercial entities, from a penny to 3.4 cents for industrial warehouses, from 4 cents to 13.6 cents for institutional businesses, and from a dime to 34 cents for nursing homes.

The commission voted 5-0 Monday to go no higher than $85 for homes. Major Jeri Muoio — who as mayor has no vote — said she’d support a rate as high as $50 but opposed $85.

The city will hold four community meetings to discuss the fire assessment fees before a final vote Aug. 19.

In the the 2012-2013 budget year, the fee generated about $2.1 million and was used to help pay for capital expenses such as new fire stations and vehicles and equipment.

Green said the city balanced its budget last year with a $2.3 million injection from reserves.

He said the city won’t have reserves to use this year, and total projected expenses will be up more than $5.8 million, with $4.9 million of that in police and fire costs. The largest amount, $2.4 million, is a projected jump in police pension costs.

Taxable property values are $8.3 billion, up 2.8 percent from about $8.1 billion in 2012-2013 — the first year the city has city values increase since 2007-2008, when it hit a high of $12.7 billion.

The 2012-2013 tax rate was $8.55 per $1,000 of taxable value. Green said he hasn’t yet issued his recommendation for the 2013-2014 rate.

Green said that besides the fire assessment, other solutions under consideration include a hiring freeze, cuts in service, contracting out some services to private firms and increasing other user fees.

“If we don’t solve this $8 million problem today, it becomes a $10 or $11 million problem next year,” Green said.

The city already is cutting deep, Muoio said.

Green said the city has cut its general expenditures some 14 percent since 2010.

“We talk about doing less with less but we’re not doing less. We’re doing the same amount, and it’s very hard,” Muoio said. She also noted some good employees have left for higher-paying jobs and the city’s having trouble attracting quality applicants with its current pay structure.

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