INDIAN ROCKS BEACH -- Harried by a controversy that had been going strong almost three months and, in their view, in desperate need for money, the Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue commissioners voted on August 3 to put a referendum on November's ballot.
The exact language of that referendum is as follows:
"A Change in the Tax Rate for Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District.
"Shall Pinellas Suncoast Fire & Rescue District, pursuant to Chapter 191 F.S., be authorized to change its non-ad valorem rate of assessment of $190 per single family residence as established by referendum in 2003, to non-ad valorem assessment of .17 cents per square foot per single family residence equalling $170 per 1,000 square feet for residential property commencing in fiscal year 2005/2006?"
That is the language voters in Bellear Beach, Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shore and in the Oakhurst area of the mainland will see on the ballot when they go to the polls November 2.
And it is that language that gives rise to the latest contentious controversy in the fire district.
The language of the referendum, opponents say, is vague and ambiguous.
What does square footage refer to? Which of the definitions used by the Tax Assessor's office -- which has distanced itself from the controversy -- applies?
This aspect came up at an Indian Rocks Beach City Commission meeting some weeks ago when Commissioner Bill Ockunzzi raised those very questions.
In response, Andy Salzman, IRB's city attorney, suggested that a constitutional challenge could be made to the referendum.
If that occurs, the referendum may be dead before arrival.
When elected officials from the jurisdictions that make up the fire district met at Indian Rocks Beach August 28, Ron Anderson of the Tax Assessor's office was on hand.
Anderson was there specifically to untangle his office from anything to do with the fire district.
When residents in the fire district raised questions about the square footage issue and called the fire district office in Indian Rocks Beach they were told to call the Tax Assessor's office and get a definition of what square footage meant.
"Don't call us," Anderson pleaded. "We can't give the answer. All we do is put down on the tax bill whatever the taxing authority tells us to put down."
Anderson explained that there are a couple ideas on square footage. There is "gross square footage" which refers to everything; then there is "basic square footage," which refers mainly to the parts of the residence under roof where folks live.
In other words, it does not include garages, breezeways, porches, etc. At least not all of them. Anderson said, for example, that garage area is included but only at 15 percent of its total area, which is then added to basic square footage.
The language of the referendum is lacking any definition of square footage.
Ockunzzi said, "One year they could assess on basic square footage and then if they needed more money in another year, use a different formula. Not fair."
Also factored in is that common areas in condominiums cannot be taxed nor can garage areas. Opponents of the square footage tax see this as a built-in unfairness.
Lawyers are now exploring the idea of making a constitutional challenge to the latest inept move by a commission that most people regard as simply incompetent.
If that doesn't succeed, a vigorous campaign to have people vote no is being planned.
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