Escambia County may increase its sales tax rate to fund firefighting services, rather than continuing the current property owner appraisal system.
During a discussion meeting Thursday morning, Commissioner Jeff Bergoch presented the idea of increasing the sales tax rate by half a penny or three-quarters of a penny.
The county budget office offered four options to pay for the increased service costs in the form of changing the existing fee, which is currently $125 for most non-commercial properties. Under the four proposals, a new fire tax based on property value would offset the difference required to generate at least $6 million in additional revenue to provide needed funding and reduce support from the General Fund.
But under the sales tax path introduced by Bergoch, property valuation would disappear.
“A lot of people are still struggling, and I don’t want to increase their property taxes by a penny,” Bergoch said. “And I wouldn’t vote to do that.” He said a large portion of sales tax revenue will fall to visitors who do not live in Escambia County and do not pay fire tax, despite using emergency services.
Voters will be asked to agree to any sales tax increase, likely in the November ballot if the proposal goes ahead.
“Let the citizens decide if this is important enough for them to pay an additional sales tax of half a cent,” Commissioner Doug Underhill said, adding that he would not support an increase for property owners. He said that as a voter, he would probably not support sales tax, but as a commissioner, he would be supportive of letting citizens choose.
The sales tax negatively affects the poor and poor consumers because they do not own real estate; Commissioner Le Mon May said. “They are the biggest consumers because they are spending and not saving, and unfortunately that is a greater burden for people on lower incomes.”
“It is the Escambia County tax-paying landlord who always pays the bill. I kind of like to post it and make sure everyone pays,” Bergoch said.
If he were to support the tax, Underhill said, it would be in the form of a sales tax because the consumer decides how aggressive his consumption or spending will be.
“People don’t decide their consumption based on their basic needs – food, shelter, necessities,” May said. “They have to eat; they have to buy basic necessities to survive in the world. When this sales tax applies, it negatively affects the person who is trying to make ends meet.”
Initial forecasts are that the half-year sales tax will generate about $25 million for Escambia County fire services after sharing the total funding with the City of Pensacola.
There was no final decision on Thursday. In the coming days, county staff will conduct an analysis to provide more concrete numbers, and to troubleshoot any legal issues. The committee will discuss the financing of firefighting services further at an upcoming meeting.