On the same day it confirmed the appointment of Anthony “Tony” Perez as the county’s new fire chief, the Pasco County Commission indicated it likely will support a tax increase to cover firefighter pay increases and additional personnel.
The board unanimously confirmed Perez’s selection at its July 11 session.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, John-Michael Morin, president of Pasco County Professional Firefighters, expressed what a significant day it was in the department’s history.
He said the department is looking forward to working with Perez, who began his firefighting career in Pasco, before rising through the ranks at Tampa Fire Rescue and returning back to the county.
The union president asked the county board “to contemplate the resources necessary to keep up with the unprecedented growth in residential and commercial development, population and the subsequent strain on the emergency services response system.
“Our success, including that of the new fire chief, is predicated on your commitment to public safety and to providing adequate, fiscally responsible and sustainable funding,” Morin said.
Later on in the meeting, four of five county board members indicated they would support a tax increase to provide additional support to Pasco Fire Rescue.
County Administrator Mike Carballa has recommended the tax rate for the Fire Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) be increased from 1.8036 mills to 2.3 mills.
Although four commissioners spoke in favor of the increase, a unanimous board vote is required to make it happen.
Commissioner Seth Weightman said he would support an increase, but not necessarily the entire amount recommended.
Pasco County Budget Director Robert Goehig explained the increase to 2.3 mills would cover pay raises and step plan increases for firefighters. It also would provide funding for the staff that’s needed at five new fire stations the county is building.
The opening of those stations will help to reduce emergency response times, Goehig said.
Weightman said he would prefer to take a look in 24 months to see what increases are needed, rather than approving what is essentially a five-year plan.
Weightman also objected to the way the recommendation came forward.
“Back in May, May 16, when we had our meeting, there was a recommendation that there would be no charge to the Fire MSTU. Then, we get a notice last night that we want to jump up, essentially over 27%,” he said.
The commissioner also noted that in the agenda backup materials, posted online, there was no indication of a proposed change in millage — meaning the public didn’t see it.
“I have concerns with how this process was handled. We go from no movement on the MSTU in May to a pretty significant bump in what you are asking for, today, right?”
He also reiterated his conservative approach relating to taxes.
“I will be supportive of the 5% wage increase for staff and some level of an increase on Fire MSTU,” Weightman said.
But he also noted: “We’re all feeling the impacts of inflation. Our residents are feeling it. Our seniors are feeling it. So, I just want to be cautious and truly understand … what this money is going to be spent on.”
Other county board members, however, voiced support for the increase.
Commission Chairman Jack Mariano put it this way: “One of the biggest goals of the MSTU is to get the firefighters to 95% of Hillsborough’s firefighters’ wages — not even 100%.”
Mariano said taxpayers have shown their support for Pasco Fire Rescue by approving a bond issue to pay for additional fire stations.
He also mentioned the parade of speakers who appeared before the board last year, pleading for additional funding to get the stations built and staffed, to reduce emergency response times.
Commissioner Ron Oakley agreed: “Cut those (response) times down, so we can service our citizens the right way.”
Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said the tax increase is necessary.
“To have service calls wait 14 minutes. That’s not OK. That’s a life-and-death scenario,” she said. “Funding public safety adequately is one of our most important roles.
“I think the step has been needed for a while, and I just think we need to do it. I think this is an important step forward.”
Commissioner Gary Bradford added: “I agree with Commissioner Starkey that it’s our obligation to fund public safety, our sheriff and our fire (and rescue services), as best we can. Fourteen minutes is too long.”
Bradford and Mariano both also noted that the board can revisit the Fire MSTU millage every year, as part of its budget deliberations.
Carballa said the planning that went into recommending the rate is based on a five-year plan and projection.
The county administrator told commissioners: “I don’t take lightly bringing a recommendation forward to increase taxes on any of our citizens, but when I am confronted with new data, I do feel compelled to act.
“We have found a way that we can work with our first responders to help overcome a lot of the serious issues that we’re seeing and facing out there today,” the administrator said.
Published July 19, 2023