Summer 2000 – Controversial fire rescue fee struck down

This judicial ruling just in on a special assessment in North Lauderdale nearly identical to Miami’s “Fire Rescue Fee.” The word: illegal.

This has been BHA’s belief, and the legal position of the warriors at BHA ally, TTUFF (Tenants and Taxpayers United For Fairness, Inc.), ever since the City enacted the fee in 1998. TTUFF’s subsequent class action suit against the City of Miami has been slowly making its way through the legal process, while in the meantime, Brickell residents and all other homeowners in Miami have been paying an annual Fire Rescue Fee, now up to $61 per household.

The mid-June Fourth District Court of Appeal’s finding, however, determined that the fee imposed by the City of North Lauderdale was not a valid special assessment.

All the Way To the Top

“The case has been certified for hearing to the Florida Supreme Court as a matter of “great public importance,” TTUFF reported, “a major victory for opponents of illegal taxes disguised as special assessments.”

The case hasn’t yet made it to court in Miami, however, this legal precedent in North Lauderdale has spurred TTUFF to ask the City to discuss how to rectify the situation.

“The City of North Lauderdale’s special assessment is identical to the City of Miami’s special assessment,” TTUFF attorney Eric Lee wrote to City Attorney Charles Mays in late June. “The City of Miami’s special assessment includes a provision for emergency medical services. The Fourth District found: ‘as a matter of law, the emergency medical services component of the integrated fire rescue program at issue in this case did not provide a special benefit to the assessed properties,'” Lee advised.

Refunds Could Break the Bank

Miami’s motion for dismissal will be thrown out, Lee asserts, and with the seeking of class certification “the implications of this decision on the City of Miami are enormous.”

In consideration of not pursuing refunds for the years the tax has been collected, TTUFF would like to see the City agree to put a Charter change on the ballot that would mean all future special taxes are possible only if they gain voter approval at the polls. The City has not yet responded to this notion.

Assessments like the Fire Rescue Fee have become means for governments to increase revenues without exceeding constitutionally mandated property tax caps. As stated the TTUFF Web site by its president, Peter J. Clancy:

“A new and pervasive form of taxation without representation has arisen in Florida. Under the guise of special assessments and user fees, local governments have found a remarkable new tool to circumvent constitutional millage caps … and they are using it!”

TTUFF expects the City of Miami’s Motion To Dismiss and Summary Judgement to be denied in early August. After that, City of Miami depositions will begin at which City officials will be questioned on their knowledge of facts and circumstances leading to adoption of fire fee special assessment.

While questioning its constitutionality from the beginning, readers may recall that BHA initially battled the inequity of the Fire Rescue fee, assessed differently for single-family and condo homeowners. Eventually, BHA prevailed to win a more equitable levy, however, BHA directors never gave up the battle over the legality of the fee, seeing it simply as “an end-run around the ad valorem tax.”

Many agree with TTUFF’s synopsis of the fee: “The fire rescue special assessment is no more than a convenient means of generating new revenue for the City’s general fund. Of the $11 million raised in the current fiscal year, only $4.2 million went directly to the Miami Fire Rescue Department for equipment purchases. The remainder went into a general fund used to run City government.”

For more details, see TTUFF Web site.

From BHA News, Summer 2000, Vol. X, No. 2