Attorney General opinion sought on fire rescue tax swap law

An attorney general’s opinion is being sought to clarify a key aspect of a 2009 law allowing governments to raise their sales tax to pay for fire rescue services while reducing property taxes used for that purpose.

The Professional Firefighters and Paramedics of Palm Beach County Local 2928 has pushed the tax swap, but county commissioners and County Attorney Denise Nieman have raised questions about how excess sales tax revenue could be used.

The law says sales tax revenue is to be used for fire rescue services and requires governments to cut property taxes by the same amount generated by the sales tax hike.

What’s not clear, commissioners say, is what happens if the sales tax hike raises more money than it costs to pay for fire rescue services. Commissioners fear they would have to cut property taxes – and the services they pay for – while excess sales tax money piles up, untouchable because fire rescue services are covered.

Union officials have said the law would allow governments to use the sales tax revenue. Commissioners aren’t so sure.

Nieman and a lawyer for the union met on Friday and could not come to agreement on the law. They did agree to seek an opinion from the attorney general.

“It is difficult to predict with any certainty when or even if the attorney general will issue an opinion,” Nieman wrote to commissioners.

The fire rescue sales tax would have to be approved by voters through a referendum, but commissioners would first have to agree to place it on the ballot.

Union officials say they want to go to voters in August. Commissioners are exploring the idea of having a separate sales tax increase on the ballot in November. That sales tax increase would raise money for roads, bridges, buildings and school equipment.

County Attorney Denise Nieman (center) speaks with County Commissioner Hal Valeche during a meeting of the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners Tuesday, January 27, 2015. Commissioners voted unanimously to ask Uber to stop operating in the county unless the company follows the current county law regulating taxis and limousines. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

County Attorney Denise Nieman (center) (Bruce R. Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)