Bay Co. Considers Eliminating Fire Tax Cap

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BAY COUNTY-- Bay County Commissioners are considering changing a policy that hasn't been touched in almost 30 years.

County Commissioners may remove a one-mill cap on the MSTU Fire Tax which pays for fire services for unincorporated areas of Bay County, but they may run into some legal problems.

Bay County Commissioners say it's getting difficult to provide adequate fire protection for residents without raising more money.

"Essential services, police, fire, ambulances, roads, you cannot cut those things without endangering lives and endangering other people," Commissioner Mike Thomas said.

"We've been making cuts year after year, after year, so it's time to look at other options," Bay County Public Information Officer Valerie Sale said.

One of those options would be to raise the MSTU Fire Tax.

But an old 1985 ordinance prevents commissioners from raising it more than one millage point.

"Ordinances and things are written based on what's happening at that time. The times have changed," Thomas said.

So the commission may eliminate the cap.

If the cap is eliminated, the new policy will only affect property owners and fire departments in unincorporated Bay County.

Oddly enough, some wonder if the 1985 policy is even legal.

"Millage rate caps are set by the state of Florida, and so one board can't bind the hands of a future board," Sale said.

And the wording on the old ordinance is also questionable.

It doesn't include the state's recent increase of the Homestead Exemption amount.

That's already cost the county's fire services about about $800,000 each year.

"And that's not possible to do. So we're changing the amendment mostly to correspond with the law," Thomas said.

Even if commissioners don't remove the cap, Thomas hopes the commission will amend the ordinance to meet the fire service needs of unincorporated Bay County.

Commissioners will take up the possible changes at tomorrow's commission meeting.

If they eliminate the tax cap, the county staff is recommending a 1.5 mill increase.

But commissioners wouldn't discuss that until later this summer.


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