A double-digit hike in the county’s fire fees will hit middle and lower-income households harder than the rich, Florida Today has found.
The Brevard County Commission last month voted to raise by 33% the fees that partly fund the firefighting operations of Brevard County Fire Rescue, with a promise to offset about 4% of the increase with federal coronavirus stimulus funds for an effective fee hike of 29%.
The fee increase will only affect residents in unincorporated Brevard, and the four municipalities that rely on the county for fire services — Grant-Valkaria, Melbourne Village, Palm Shores and West Melbourne.
But a loophole that allows residents with homes above a certain size threshold to pay less per square foot will be made worse by the percentage-based hike, with the largest homes seeing the smallest increases, a Florida Today review of the fee structure found.
The largest homes subject to the fee were also among the most expensive, the review found. The findings show that, come November, the county’s wealthiest homeowners will pay only a fraction of the fire fees owed by most Brevard residents, relative to the size of their homes.
Larger homes pay less per square foot
The amount that Brevard residents pay in annual fire fees is based on the base area square footage of their homes.
The “per-square-foot” focus of the assessment is by design.
Independent consultants Burton & Associates, in a 2008 review proposing the current fee schedule, justified the fee as the cumulative cost of protection from fire damage conferred on each square foot of a structure.
The county has largely hewed to that line of reasoning, according to Brevard County Public Safety Director Matthew Wallace.
“It’s the loss of one square foot, and the cost of the resources to put out the fire at that one square foot,” Wallace said of the fee assessment.
Accordingly, larger homes pay more, with the fee scaling up based on where a home falls within a range of square footage. For example, owners of single-family homes between 701 and 1,100 square feet currently pay an annual fee of $110.13, while owners of homes between 1,801 and 2,200 square feet pay $245.81.
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But that scale tops out above 2,600 square feet. Any single-family home above that threshold is assessed the current maximum of $344.13.
In practice, that means the owner of a 10,000-square-foot, multimillion-dollar mansion pays the same as the owner of a 2,601-square-foot, middle-class home. It also means the larger your home is above that threshold, the less you pay per square foot.
While the average Brevard homeowner pays the equivalent of between 11 and 15 cents per square foot for fire services, Florida Today found the county’s wealthiest residents are paying only a fraction for the same protection on their homes.
Using data from the Brevard County Property Appraiser’s Office, reporters found the owners of the largest single-family homes subject to the county fire fee — accounting for 26 of the priciest 100 homes in the county, according to the Florida residential property tracking website MansionQuest.com — paid an average of just 4 cents per square foot in county fire fees in 2020.
Those homes averaged around 8,023 square feet, with an average assessed value of about $2.18 million, the review found.
The owner of one home, a sprawling 12,845-square-foot, $2.78 million mansion along South Tropical Trail on Merritt Island, last year paid the equivalent of only 2.7 cents per square foot, according to property and tax records.
Fee hike hits smaller homes harder
The fee structure leaves most county homeowners paying between 7 and 11 cents more per square foot than the average of the 26 most expensive homes reviewed by Florida Today.
That disparity will only widen when the fee hike takes effect in November, leading to a rate increase that hits middle and low-income homeowners harder than their wealthier neighbors.
Consider a 1,800-square-foot, single-family home, around the Brevard County average. The owner will pay the equivalent of 29% higher than the current fee — an increase of $57.03, for that size range — for an effective payment in 2021 of $253.67. That’s a hike of about 3 cents per square foot.
At the new effective maximum fee after the increase of $443.93, the average hike on the homes reviewed by Florida Today will be just 1.5 cents per square foot.
West Melbourne Deputy Mayor John Dittmore said the loophole was part of why he opposed the rate hike when it first came before the County Commission in March.
“The procedure for how they tax us for the fire assessment tax is not equitable for all the residents,” Dittmore said in an interview.
Spurred by the commission’s 4-1 vote to raise the fire fee — Commissioner John Tobia was the only one to oppose the rate increase — West Melbourne is looking into starting its own fire department.
The decision would save city residents — the vast majority of whom own homes below the current size threshold, according to county property records — from subsidizing those with larger homes elsewhere in the county, Dittmore said.
“The people with more expensive homes who would normally pay a higher number with ad valorem taxes would somehow get a break, and it’s a disproportionate share on smaller homes,” Dittmore said of the fee increase.
“This is a horrible way to do this. I don’t know why they do it this way,” Dittmore said.
‘It’s transferring wealth’
While the fire assessment fee accounts for roughly two-thirds of BCFR’s fire operations budget, it’s not the whole picture.
The remainder is funded through a special fire taxing district, which levies an additional property tax on homes at the rate of about 60 cents per $1,000 in taxable value.
The additional tax means that, in practice, the owners of the most expensive homes still pay more in total for fire protection than the average homeowner.
And county commissioners in the past have argued the amount of resources necessary to fight fires at larger homes isn’t proportionate to additional fee increases on homes above the size threshold.
But that rationale hasn’t convinced everyone.
“It’s basic math. If the fire department comes to a 10,000-square-foot home and its on fire, they have a lot more to do than if it’s a 1,200-square-foot home,” said Sara Ann Conkling, a Cocoa resident and community activist.
Conkling raised the the same issue with the county commission in 2018, when the board proposed (and ultimately approved) raising the fire fee by 6%.
At the time, Conkling and a number of concerned residents and activists pleaded with the board to restructure the fee, making it fairer for lower-income residents — to little success.
The inequity only stands to get worse with the pending fee hike, she said.
“It’s transferring wealth from the poor to the rich,” she said.
In 2018, Conkling proposed an extended fee structure that built upon the original proposed by Burton & Associates, which would have broken homes up into additional tiers above the current size threshold.
If the county had adopted that method, it may only have needed to raise the rates a fraction of the percent, she said.
These days, Conkling said, the fairest thing to do would be to follow the lead of surrounding counties: abolish the fee and fund fire services entirely through property taxes.
“The homes that were built in the 50s and 60s, the people living in those homes are working class people, or older people,” she said. “We need to make sure they’re not being taken advantage of.”