DAYTONA BEACH -- John J. Williams, an 81-year-old retiree, walked to the podium during the most recent City Commission meeting, shook his head and declared to the mayor and the commissioners, "Holy crap! This is ridiculous."
Although no public hearing was set at the time, his unvarnished sentiment was a dose of what the commission should expect to hear at its meeting this week about the proposed fire-assessment fee. The session will start at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The World's Most Famous Beach is heading down a road few city governments tread, creating what is essentially a fire tax that could be levied against the tax-base untouchables such as other government properties, including schools, church properties and other nonprofits, as well as residents.
The idea is to help the city raise between $6.6 million and $8.8 million to help fix the city's budget woes with a fire-protection fee. The plan is to use the new fee to pay for most of the Fire Department's proposed $8.8 million budget, then sliding tax money usually spent on fire protection into other places, such as paying police overtime during Bike Week.
The fee, at $8.8 million, would represent 5.7 percent of the proposed $152 million budget slated for adoption in September; and the $6.6 million level would be 4.3 percent of the budget.
It is a move recommended by the city's financial consultants, and it has been successfully used in about 50 communities across Florida. State law permits such a move, but some local residents and county officials call it an economic shell game.
Williams complained later that he and other residents already pay for the Fire Department through their taxes. Why, he asked, should they have to pay again? Homeowners would pay $134 annually and apartment and condominium dwellers would pay $89 under the plan.
"What's next? A police-assessment fee?" Williams asked after the meeting.
Although it's politically unpopular, Mayor Bud Asher said that the fire-protection fee might be necessary to restore the city's financial health and maintain the services that residents have come to count on. After six years of not raising taxes, the city had a $2.2 million budget shortfall this year, and bigger shortages are expected unless more money is found.
"These are tough decisions but we have to do what's right for the city," Asher said.
COUNTY COUNCIL RESISTS
Even the Daytona Beach City Commission isn't of one mind on the fire tax, with nearly half of the commissioners voting against it in the razor-thin 4-3 vote -- with commissioners George Burden, Charles Cherry and Darlene Yordon opposing it.
They aren't the only ones who are anxious about the city's next move.
The County Council openly balked during an emergency meeting last week to oppose the controversial fire-protection fee that could cost the county as much as $225,232 annually.
Council member Big John complained that Daytona officials are essentially asking county taxpayers to fix the city's money problems.
He also pointed out that it could touch off a budget-bleeding trend if the 15 other cities and towns in the county wanted the same break that Daytona Beach gets.
"This is really a bad idea," John said.
For instance, John asked, what do you do about Daytona Beach International Airport? The county owns it and the fire tax could be upward of $168,000, but the airport has its own Fire Department.
Asher pointed out that nothing has been established yet, as far as which properties would or would not be included.
"What we're doing now is just preserving our right to go forward with this," Asher said. "We don't know yet who will or won't be included."
He also said that county officials are "out of line" to tell Daytona not to have the fire-assessment fee at all.
SCHOOL BOARD CONCERNED
The School Board is worried too, and it sent a letter pleading that the city not try to slice a $400,000 wedge out of the bank account that it needs to pay for teachers, schools and books.
School Board members were present at the most recent City Commission meeting and are expected to make their voices heard Wednesday.
Some church leaders also are nervous.
The folks over at the First Assembly of God on Ridgewood Avenue say there must be another way. Under the city's plan, the fire tax would cost the church 29 cents per foot of property. That would be a $7,250 annual bill for the 25,000-square-foot facility.
BITE INTO CHURCH'S WALLET
That's a lot of money for the congregation of 200 regulars, said its pastor, the Rev. Dickie Alan Dixon, who said that the city would be crossing a barrier respected throughout the country that recognizes churches' role in society, Dixon said.
"It's very possible that churches would have to divert money from benevolence and charity work to offset the tax," he said.
"Our congregation wants to be good citizens," Dixon said. "I think the city would get a better result if they asked the churches for a special donation for the city's Fire Department."
That way, churches could pay what they could afford.
Asher has proposed that church sanctuaries and other places used specifically for worship not be included, but other church property could be.
Groups that watch public policy, such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, agree with Daytona's steps.
"The U.S. Supreme Court holds that laws that are neutral -- not singling out churches -- are constitutional," said Rob Boston, the group's spokesman.
"It sounds fair to me. No one's getting a free ride or special break," he said.
Citizens for a Sound Economy, a tax-watchdog group in Washington, said that while the fire fee is legal, it doesn't seem fair for residents or the nonprofits.
"We've been dealing with this issue all over the country," said Marty Reiser, its spokesman. "Rather than clamping down on spending, governments are looking for new money anywhere they can it. We oppose this on that basis."
TO CUT OR NOT TO CUT
Commissioner Burden said the city could cut spending somewhere in the proposed $152 million budget. For that reason, he opposes the fire-assessment fee.
Asher said that with "all the demands for services made by the public," there's nowhere left to cut, so that means raising more money. Commissioners who don't believe that, Asher said, are "not in the same world."