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Church, city look to settle dispute

By Staff | Apr 16, 2012

Within moments after the start of the city council’s workshop meeting Monday at City Hall, the fur flew over a dispute that has festered for four years between a local church and the city.

Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and City Attorney Dolores Menendez agreed to schedule a meeting between the two sides in hopes to avoid a lawsuit by the city.

The city held a discussion over whether the city should have the authority to sue Daybreak Baptist Fellowship for nearly $400,000 in utility assessments the city said the church should pay after selling a 13.5 acre parcel in 2008 to the Lee County School District.

Daybreak bought two parcels of land on Trafalgar Parkway in 2001. In January 2008, the church sold one parcel, but not before the city sent the church notice in 2007 that they were respnsible for nearly $400,000 in assessments.

Daybreak, which has planned to use the other parcel for a church, has argued the assessment should stay with the property and not the original owner, and several church members, as well as the pastor, made the church’s case.

The city believes the church is responsible for the balance, but conceded it doesn’t want to bring the case to court, though it will if it has to.

During public comment moments into the meeting, church members gave their plea to council.

“We’re an active part of Cape Coral. We support programs to help children,” said church supporter Grace Hernandez.

“The city is trying to make sure it gets the money that’s theirs. Daybreak has paid all its assessments,” supporter Scott Anderson said. “It’s snowballed to where we have lawyers involved and feeling has overridden common sense.”

When a woman accused the church of sitting on money, Randy Miller, the church’s pastor, responded.

“There’s a perception we have lots of money. The proceeds from the sale went to clean out the land on the west,” Miller said. “We’re not sitting on millions.”

Daybreak attorney Steve Hartsell said the church has waited for a response from the city to a letter it sent about the situation.

“We sent a letter laying out our reasoning. We believe the church doesn’t owe,” Hartsell said. “We have yet to get a response.”

Council, though, feeling it’s in the right, still felt uneasy about taking the issue to court.

“I’m cringing because we’ve had this conversation for years,” Councilmember Derrick Donnell said. “The consent agenda is our last option. Now I have to explain this to my pastor.”

Mayor John Sullivan said it wasn’t prudent to play hardball with a church.

“It’s more palatable to negotiate and come to a reasonable conclusion,” Sullivan said.

Menendez agreed to schedule a meeting with Hartsell this week to see if a resolution can be reached.

“We’ve been open to negotiation from the beginning,” Hartsell said.

If an agreement can be reached, the agenda item will be removed. Otherwise, the city will vote next Monday on whether to authorize filing suit.

Council hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“There’s no advantage to the city suing a church. We need to work this out,” Councilmember Kevin McGrail said. “Don’t put us in a corner.”