With the economy still sputtering and local needs growing, Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to look at a host of user-fee increases that could boost revenues.
Up for consideration are increased fees to transport patients by ambulance, higher stormwater fees, communication tax hikes and parks and recreation service fees. The county is also considering starting money-making “premium attractions” at county parks, such as cabin rentals.
Though they did not raise any fees during the Wednesday budget workshop, commissioners did give County Administrator Mike Merrill the go-ahead to analyze some of the larger fee categories.
“Some of those fees have grown up over time without any strategy, rhyme or reason,” Merrill said. “We have a patchwork that has developed over time … There needs to be a basis for how we charge fees.”
Ideally, user fees should cover the cost of the service provided. But in many cases, Hillsborough’s fees were developed by copying what other counties are doing.
“We should know our cost of services,” said parks Director Mark Thornton after the meeting. “We don’t really know that now.”
Other fees were put in place a decade or more ago. Updating them would mean more revenue in county coffers. For instance, the $12-a-household annual stormwater fee, which was instituted in 1991 to help deal with flooding problems, has never been raised.
Making needed upgrades to the county’s aging stormwater drainage pipes and flood control systems would take between $350 million and $400 million, county public works chief Mike Williams told the commission.
Commissioner Les Miller, who asked Williams for the cost estimate on the county’s stormwater needs, acknowledged that his fellow board members were uncomfortable discussing fee increases. But the alternative, Miller said, would be letting the pipes deteriorate to the point of collapse 10 or 15 years down the road.
“I’m willing to bite that bullet,” Miller said, “and go out there and tell folks, ‘You know, look we got to do this now cause if we don’t, 10 years down the road, we’ve got some major, major problems.’ ”
Williams said he would come back later this year with a plan that would show how much infrastructure could be upgraded with different fee increases.
Another opportunity to increase revenues would be raising the fees for ambulance service, which are “close to the lowest” in the state for similarly sized counties, said Sharon Subadan, deputy administrator for public safety and communications.
The county charges just under the maximum that Medicare and Medicaid will pay for ambulance trips, Subadan said. So the greatest opportunity to raise revenue would be to charge patients with private insurance more.
The county now charges just over $400 a trip, while private insurers are paying $900 or more in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. If the county raised its rate to $900, it would generate another $3 million a year, Subadan said.
The county could also increase its 4 percent communications tax, which is levied on telecommunications, including voice, data, video and other media. The tax generates $24.6 million a year. Raising the levy to 5.22 percent, the maximum allowed by state law, would generate an additional $7 million.
In their comments toward the end of the meeting, commissioners framed the choice as being more about charging for the actual cost of services than trying to increase revenues.
“Are we overcharging or undercharging?” Commissioner Victor Crist asked, referring to building and development fees.
The county is in a quandary because of its reliance on property taxes, which were decimated during the recent recession. Though county property tax collections are projected to increase by 3 percent next year, they have risen an average of just 2 percent over the last 10 years, said Tom Fesler, director of business and support services.
“We can’t continue to remain reliant on just property taxes to take care of everything,” said Commissioner Kevin Beckner. “We realized, we have seen, what has happened when you take that philosophy, when there’s a downturn in property values and we’re struggling and we’re cutting every core part of our” government.
Merrill said fee adjustments are a piece of a larger financial puzzle that commissioners eventually will have to address. The commission’s top strategic goal is economic growth, but that takes investments in transportation, stormwater and other infrastructure.
Merrill said the commission may have to consider rebalancing the tax structure to put more emphasis on sales taxes, which grow faster than property taxes because they are paid by visitors and tourists as well as county residents.
“One thing we know for sure is we can’t continue to go the way we’re going now; it’s not sustainable,” Merrill said after the meeting.
The county has cut spending by 29 percent per capita over the last three years, and Merrill said he will continue to look for savings.
“But if you have big infrastructure needs, you have to pay for it,” he said, “and you have to pay for it in a way that’s not going to have an adverse effect by dampening the economy.”