$250 fire-rescue fee hot topic in Gables budget workshop

Jul 17, 2008

Miami Herald--July 16, 2008


In his presentation at the Coral Gables City Commission’s first budget workshop, City Manager David Brown stressed the positive: Many city homeowners could see tax decreases next year for the first time, thanks to the doubling of the homestead exemption approved by state voters in January.

But some commissioners were less enthusiastic about a proposed $250 transport fee for residents who use fire-rescue services to take them to area hospitals.

While new construction increased the tax base in the city by about $850,000, the average home might pay about $132 less next year, he said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to submit a tax rate of $5.25 for every $1,000 of taxable property to the county property appraiser’s office. That’s the same rate in effect for the current fiscal year.

They also seemed willing to accept the administration’s recommendation that garbage fees be increased $30 a year to help offset the city’s cost. But because the city still subsidizes about 30 percent of solid waste service through the general fund, Vice Mayor William Kerdyk asked to see how much more could be generated by raising the fee by $40.

The proposed $250 transport fee for fire-rescue services might have a more uphill battle.

At least one commissioner, Ralph Cabrera, said he would not go for it.

While the administration has said it won’t charge individual homeowners unless they get reimbursed or direct payment from their insurance carriers, Cabrera — an insurance benefits consultant — said that was ”a discriminatory practice.” He said he would prefer to charge a smaller, fixed fee to everyone.

In addition, he said called most major insurance carriers and learned that most, if not all, will charge a deductible or copayment to the consumer.

”They are all over the board. There is no continuity,” Cabrera said, adding that it would be a difficult process for the city to manage. He suggested the city lobby the state legislature to pass a bill that would require insurance companies to pay such fees.

“I will support a tax increase before I support a transport fee.”

His fear: That seniors in the Gables or others on fixed incomes will not call 911 when needed.

”People will die,” Cabrera said, adding that some elderly residents would call their children to take them to a hospital to save the $100 copayment.

Mayor Don Slesnick said many other cities had transport fees for all residents, regardless of insurance. He cited Miami and Miami Beach.

”And people aren’t dying in greater numbers in those cities because they have to pay a transport fee,” Slesnick said, adding the resident should be charged regardless of insurance coverage.

”If you’re going to charge, charge. And let the chips fall where they may,” he said.

The proposed $144 million 2008-09 budget also calls for an 5 percent increase in park and recreation fees. But the city lost more than $5.5 million in revenue because of tax reform measures, Brown said.

That means the city won’t fund any new capital improvement projects from the general fund this coming year, Brown added.

There will be work on the Old Cutler force main and two lift stations that power the sanitary sewer drives in the downtown and the residential area near the Country Club of Coral Gables, but that is being done with $1.25 million from the state.

The city will also use almost $3.9 million from other dedicated funds: $150,000 from the storm water fund for storm sewer improvements, $1.165 million from the gasoline tax to resurface and build streets and curbing and $2.55 million for sanitary sewer improvements.

And other projects that were funded in previous years — the art house cinema, the restoration of Country Club Prado and the Actor’s Playhouse marquee, for example — will continued to be worked on this year, Brown said.