“You can bet your bottom dollar that if the city of Fort Walton Beach passes this fee, other churches (in other areas) will face a similar fee. This could be a real Pandora’s box.”
TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn
FORT WALTON BEACH — A city staff-recommended annual fire assessment of 5 cents per square foot on churches for fiscal 2018 doesn’t sit well with local church leaders such as the Rev. Cecil Williams.
“That would be a dramatic hit on my church,” Williams, the pastor of the 67-year-old Gregg Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Carson Drive, said Thursday. “With all we do to assist the city, I don’t know how they can (possibly) charge this. It’s a bit much on top of all everything else we have to pay for.”
The leader of one of the city’s largest churches expressed similar concerns.
“The two big things are the precedent of taxing churches and calling it a fee, and that it might start at 5 cents, but it opens the door for it to be raised far beyond that in future years,” said the Rev. Howard Gates of the First Baptist Church of Fort Walton Beach on First Street.
The First Baptist Church campus consists of the church sanctuary, its Christian Life Center, a fellowship hall, administrative building and three educational buildings, all of which total 122,000 square feet. At 5 cents per square foot, the church would be charged an annual fire fee of $6,100.
That amount would pay for a lot of community missions, Gates said.
“I don’t think the churches of this area, and we certainly have not, have recovered from the economic recession,” he said.
The possible fire fee on churches, which would be the same rate charged to nonprofit groups and other “institutional” types of properties, is one of several city staff-recommended, annual fire assessments that will be up for discussion at a special City Council meeting set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. It will take place in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 107 Miracle Strip Parkway S.W.
City officials said the session is for informational purposes only. The council will not be asked to consider whether to give initial approval to an overall fire-fee resolution until June 27.
Okaloosa County Tax Collector Ben Anderson said Fort Walton Beach officials might set a trend if they decide to implement fire fees on churches.
“You can bet your bottom dollar that if the city of Fort Walton Beach passes this fee, other churches (in other areas) will face a similar fee,” Anderson said. “This could be a real Pandora’s box.”
Besides the possible fire fee on churches, city staff is recommending a $24 annual fire fee on each residential dwelling unit in fiscal 2018, which starts Oct. 1.
Other recommended fee rates include 3 cents per square foot for commercial properties and 1 cent per square foot for industrial/warehouse sites. Staff also recommends charging the fire fees for an initial two-year time-frame, collecting them via property owners’ yearly tax bills, exempting schools and governmental properties from the assessments and not reducing the millage rate to offset the cost of the fees.
In regard to the possible exemptions, FWB Fire Chief Ken Perkins wrote in a memo to City Manager Michael Beedie that “It is believed that fire assessment costs may likely equate to increased ad valorem tax assessments at other levels of government.”
City officials say the fire fee is not a tax and can be charged to the 37 tax-exempt churches in Fort Walton Beach.
But Williams said, “I am truly opposed to it and I’ll be at (Tuesday’s) meeting.”
He said his church is an economic development-style church that consists of a sanctuary, a life center and 16 residences for low-to-moderate-income people.
“And we want to build six more homes for homeless veterans,” Williams said. “I’m assuming we’d be charged for those as well.”
‘Our fair share’
City officials say the four recommended fire fees would generate $428,820 to pay for fire department capital expenses and improvements. They say revenue generated by the fees would be a more stable source of funding than property taxes and other sources that make up the general fund.
The Rev. Sharon Schuler, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Walton Beach on Beal Parkway, said she appreciates the fire department and understands that it needs revenue.
“I have had to call on them for help before, and I appreciate their efficiency,” Schuler said. “But it’s too bad (city officials) can’t look at what we do to help the community and realize we do our fair share.”
She said the church participated in local cold-night shelter and feed-the-hungry programs for about 15 years before expenses and building misuse brought them to an end.
According to the city’s fire assessment study, residential properties generated the most fire calls per property-use category in fiscal 2016. Commercial properties generated the second highest number of fire calls, institutional properties including churches and schools generated the third-highest and industrial/warehouse sites generated the fewest.
Beedie recently said that money generated by the four recommended fee rates would allow the city to pay off the fire department’s debt of $600,000 to $700,000 in two years. The debt stems from the purchases of a new ladder truck and fire engine.
Mayor Dick Rynearson, who only votes on city matters in case of a tie, said, “I don’t feel the city staff is erroneous in any way” in its recommendation of a fire fee for churches.
Councilman Mike Holmes, who was first elected to the council in 2003 and has the most council experience of any council member, said city officials still are in fact-finding mode on the possible assessments. He said he is an elder at a local church and has discussed the possible fees with different churches.
“It’s not just the churches, it’s also the nonprofit facilities” that have expressed concern about the potential fees, he said. “But it’s way too early to support this or support that without getting enough information to make a good decision on this.”
He said the possible adoption of an additional $25,000 homestead exemption in November 2018, as well as potential state legislation that could hamper the way local governments set property tax rates, will factor in the city’s talks on fire fees.
“We have a family business (Holmes Auto Repair) and I live in Fort Walton, so I would have to pay the fees like everyone else,” Holmes said. “Making those (fee) decisions affects my business and my family. But I also have to be a good steward of the city and look to see what is best for the majority of the citizens.”