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County Fire Assessment:  Rates On Fire – Final Decision Next Week

Barn on fire with headline: County Fire Rates, Commissioner Toby Witt, "This is not the time to raise rates."
Photo: Jen Theodore via Unsplash | Columbia County Observer graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Tuesday, August 30, the Columbia County 5 met to discuss and take some budgetary actions. One of those actions was to review the proposed new fire assessment.


Since 2007, your reporter, a resident and property owner in Columbia County, has been pointing out the deficiencies of the County's fire assessment regarding vacant land.

Commissioner Rocky Ford
Commissioner Rocky Ford (file)

In 2017, the Florida legislature took notice of the inequities in how vacant and agricultural land was assessed for fire services and passed new legislation that resulted in fairer rates with possible savings for those assessed for fire protection.

Fire assessments can only fund fire-rescue services and cannot be used for any other purpose.

The fire assessment is part of the property tax bill you will receive in November.

The fire rates are based on a study by Tindale Oliver, now Benesch, a firm that does a straight-up top-notch job of fire assessments. You can read the study here.

State law requires that the rates be proportional to the property owner's benefits.

County Manager David Kraus Opened the Discussion

County Manager David Kraus: “We are going to recommend an increase -- to lower the increase -- from $80-$50 residential; we are recommending a $50 residential assessment… In terms of the fire assessment, if we go with the $50 rate, it will generate $7,486,315. From that, you take your exemptions and exclusions, and this is what all your rates would look like."

"We need to know from the Board, is that the rate you want to set for the fire assessment?"

The County 5 on the Fire Assessment

Commissioner Rocky Ford began, “I say -- it's not the rate we want to -- I think it's the rate we have to – but that's not the rate I want to.”

Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth
Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth (file)

Chairman Hollingsworth added, “It’s just the fact that everything's gone up.”

Long-time Commissioner Ronald Williams opined, "Board, I hope we don't put ourself [sic] in that position again, especially on these rates, and wait five years before we make any adjustment; a small adjustment now and then is better than one big adjustment at one time. We need to remember that.”

Commissioner Tim Murphy weighed in, “Starting next year like Ron just said, can we not just go ahead and assume -- you know -- use this percentage and dictating next year? Is that legal to do?”

County Manager Kraus answered, “You could raise it again next year.”

Commissioner Murphy followed up, “We probably need to have a workshop on that.”

The 5 had time to have a workshop and thrash out the assessment. It didn't.

Commissioner Toby Witt:
“You have record reserves. We’re in the middle of a recession”

Commissioner Toby Witt
Commissioner Toby Witt (file)

Commissioner Witt told The 5, “I still don't agree with it… I've stuck by this since I've been in office. Here we are in the middle of a recession. You still have record reserves. This is the wrong year to raise rates -- if there is any year to raise rates. We gave the garbage assessment refund during the COVID crisis. I know $50 doesn't seem like a lot, but the feedback I've got, people aren't happy with this. It's a bad look in the middle of a recession. This assessment doesn't fully fund the fire department anyway. It's funded by multiple streams.

Commissioner Witt continued, “As your revenue comes up for economic growth, these assessments and things should go down and stay low. I am not going to let one of my last actions be going against what I said I would never do, and that's raise taxes cause I don't believe you have to raise taxes. I'm not for this.”

County Manager Kraus explained what happened to the excess funds. He said, “So what we did, any of the excess monies in any of the funds, we pulled and put them into the capital improvement program. That's how you're funding your capital improvement program. You're keeping your reserves where they need to be. Any excess funds we put into capital improvements.”

County Manager Kraus did not mention the excess funds that were moved into the capital improvement fund.

Commissioner Tim Murphy
Commissioner Tim Murphy (file)

Commissioner Murphy said, “I understand exactly where Mr. Witt is comin’ from.

Mr. Murphy mentioned that he knows people that aren't paying their full assessments.

Mr. Murphy brought up that the County was supposed to investigate every street in the County for folks who weren't paying their assessments.

Mr. Murphy said, “What Toby is saying is exactly right. There is a lot of money out there that we are not collecting.”

Mr. Murphy said he found people who are not paying for garbage pickup. “They’re puttin’ their trashcan out there. There is a lot of money being left on the table. A lot of money.”

Mr. Murphy concluded, “Everybody ought to pay their fair share.”

Chairman Hollingsworth asked, “Any more questions?”

There were neither statements nor questions.

Mr. Hollingsworth did not ask for a vote on the assessment increase.


The County 5 will vote on both the fire and garbage assessments during its September 8 meeting when the first budget hearing is scheduled.

The meeting begins at 5:30 pm.

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