Spring 1998 – Fire rescue fee: Reasonable or dangerous precedent?

Neighbors fear floodgate opened

For some, the battle of the Fire Rescue Fee is settled. The final amount of the fee seems much more palatable than the proposed $160 a year a mere $24 for condominium and single-family owners.

The tax is also being imposed more equitably than originally proposed condo, apartment and single-family owners will all pay, rather than just condo and apartment owners.

Further, the fee is being used for capital improvements of the fire rescue service (new trucks and renovated stations), and will end in five years, Commissioner JL Plummer said, which some find reassuring and reasonable.

But for many, the battle of the Fire Rescue Fee is far from over. The legal challenges have begun by a number of parties who contend the fee is an additional tax, “an end run around ad valorem taxes,” illegal and unconstitutional. Any amount, even one penny, levied in this way is unacceptable, opponents contend.

The Coalition of Real Estate Owners and Organizations, CREOO, and Taxpayers and Tenants United For Fairness, TTUFF, have filed suit and vowed to fight all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. It may become a class action suit.

The Brickell Homeowners Association worked with these groups to help defeat the tax back in late February. When the City Commissioners reinstated a reduced fee in April, the coalition came together again.

The implications of this Fire Rescue Fee “affects anyone in the city and in the state,” Judy Clark, a TTUFF leader said.

When the Florida Legislature passed the bill in 1996 allowing “special assessments” the floodgate was opened. “Any municipality or county can charge anybody anything and can use it for any purpose,” Ms. Clark said. “Any fee, any time, no cap, no limit.”

Indeed, that does seem to be the way the language of the law reads. (See side-bar below.)

Are there really limits?

Opponents of the fee say that some of the reassurances residents have been told are not actually the case: The $24 per year amount could actually go up to $48 per year. The Commission did not specify in the language of the ordinance that the collected revenues would only go for capital improvements, Ms. Clark said. Plus, the five-year sunset can be lifted anytime with a vote by the Commission, she said.

Clearly it is Commissioner Plummer’s intent that the new revenue be used for new rescue vehicles and that it is “guaranteed for five years only.”

Ten new rescue trucks have been ordered and another 10 will be ordered, Commissioner Plummer reported to BHA Directors May 20th. Those trucks respond to 70,000 calls a year. They need to be upgraded and kept current to keep the excellent service they provide, the Commissioner said.

Pay and Protest

In the meantime, where does this leave homeowners?

Homeowners should pay the fees while the case makes its way through the legal system, Sheila M. Anderson, a CREOO leader, advised. The legal victory may be a number of years down the road and refunds would be made then. If the fee isn’t paid, an owner could have a lien filed against his or her property, she explained, which no one wants.

Residents interested in joining the suit are invited to call Ms. Anderson at (305) 579-0022.

 

West’s Florida Statutes Annotated

Title XII. Municipalities Chapter 170. Supplemental And Alternative Method of Making Local Municipal Improvements

 

170.201. Special Assessments

(1) In addition to other lawful authority to levy and collect special assessments, the governing body of a municipality may levy and collect special assessments to fund capital improvements and municipal services, including but not limited to, fire protection, emergency medical services, garbage disposal, sewer improvement, street improvement, and parking facilities. The governing body of a municipality may apportion costs of such special assessments based on:

(a) The front of square footage of each parcel of land; or

(b) An alternative methodology, so long as the amount of the assessment for each parcel of land is not in excess of the proportional benefits as compared to other assessments on other parcels of land.

(2) Property owned or occupied by a religious institution and used as a place of worship or education or by a public or private elementary, middle, or high school shall be exempt from any special assessment levied by a municipality to fund emergency medical services if the municipality so desires. As used in the subsection, “religious institution” means any church, synagogue, or other established physical place for worship at which nonprofit religious services and activities are regularly conducted and carried on.

Courtesy of Atlas, Pearlman, Trop, Borkman, et al

From BHA News, Spring 1998, Vol. VIII, No. 1