Simple Fire Assessment Methodology

GAI staff are working with local governments and institutions all over the country to identify enhanced funding options for their programs.  Our work occasionally involves forecasting activities for explicit  projects but often the effort involves substantially greater creativity.

In the states permitting them, special assessments have become a valued and predictable means of supporting local government activities. They are primarily an alternative to general fund taxation. Assessments usually focus on a single activity or service so contributors can easily value the activity or service funded by the assessment.  That singular focus is what gives the assessment so much financial power. Fire services, because they account for a very large part of the typical local government budget, are an obvious target of assessments.

In Florida, assessments for fire services, however, have proven expensive to implement because they rely on complex allocation systems. Until recently, there was much uncertainty about the legal sufficiency of methods departing from the more typical and detailed approaches tied to calls for service. “Our goal in finding an alternative,” says GAI’s Owen Beitsch, PhD, FAICP, CRE, “was to push the boundary while preserving the legal construct. Clearly, the legal and financial communities must be comfortable with a new approach, but in many cases the law can be advanced with reasoned nuance and strategy.”

As many people have observed, much of what the fire department does is remain on standby, ready to go to a call. In a much more simplified approach, the premise then is not calls but rather the readiness of the fire fighting force—which is virtually the same every day with regard to number of personnel and available equipment.

“It is exciting to be personally identified in briefs submitted to the Florida Supreme Court as a thought leader who has helped to develop alternatives to funding local government services within the existing legal paradigm.”

Owen Beitsch, PhD, FAICP, CRE

A Florida Supreme Court case adjudicated approximately two years ago in May, 2015 appears to confirm that an inexpensive and easily implemented assessment program—based on the idea of readiness and placed in service by Beitsch and several other professionals—can now be used in Florida. Because of its flexibility, it generates significant revenues to complement those already available to the local governments. The approach is easily updated with nominal effort year to year. Its simplicity virtually assures its place in the normal budgeting process.

Because of its focus, the simple fire assessment methodology is attractive to large and small communities. Smaller communities, in particular, have found the cost of usual methods expensive to implement and cumbersome to administer.

This now available method has another beneficial dimension. “Its basic features apply to many services and funding needs. I am often asked by local governments if there are options to address critical financial and budgeting problems,” stated Beitsch. “Realistically, in Florida and other states, there are few solutions. The state constitution and statutory structure impose limited options.” According to Beitsch, the key is to think through those which are available and apply them more creatively.

“It is exciting to be personally identified in briefs submitted to the Florida Supreme Court as a thought leader who has helped to develop alternatives to funding local government services within the existing legal paradigm,” stated Beitsch. He recognizes that this approach will likely be widely copied now that the court stands behind the general method. Similar to all methods of funding and finance, the simple approach has its own set of peculiarities. Beitsch notes that the case in question, while it substantively settles the legal matter of simplified assessments, also illustrates the challenges that occur when they are done without a full understanding of their implications. The team mentioned in the brief has now done this process several times. It is believed that this court opinion will allow Beitsch’s team and others to explore additional applications of this same method to situations involving services other than fire.

According to Beitsch, GAI and other members of the team have established a cooperative purchasing agreement with the City of Brooksville, FL. As a result, it is very easy to begin a discussion about the advantages, suitability, and challenges of a simplified fire method in virtually every community in Florida. “Given Florida’s budget cycle and the time to get an assessment program in place, it would be wise to begin exploring this now if it is to be in place for the upcoming fiscal year,” Beitsch advises.

GAI’s staff works with local governments and institutions across the country to identify enhanced funding options and opportunities for their programs. For more advice on special assessments, economic planning, and/or infrastructure investment, contact Owen Beitsch, PhD, FAICP, CRE at 407.423.8398.

 

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