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Council passes fire assessment ordinance

By Staff | Jul 17, 2013

Even though the decision to validate the fire assessment will cause a bit of a speed bump in the process, City Council passed an ordinance to authorized the imposition and collection of the assessment during Monday’s regular meeting at City Hall.

The council voted 6-2 to approve the “ready to serve” method of fire assessment, a two-tier approach that charges a flat fee for all landowners in Cape Coral, regardless of if the land is developed, followed by a fee based on every $5,000 the improvement is worth.

But it will have to wait until early next year to be implemented, since the city will have to go through a bond validation, which will not occur until after the fiscal year 2014 budget is passed.

The assessment, along with the one mil ad valorem tax cut, will be passed along in a bill sometime next year, City Manager John Szerlag said.

“Because of the bond validation process, we can’t have our budget adopted on time. The public service tax will be $65,” Szerlag said. “If all goes well, there’s a bond validation and residents will get a bill for a fire assessment early in 2014, with a one mil credit.”

The bond validation process was the brainchild of Christopher Roe of the law firm of Bryant Miller Olive, which has worked with the “ready to serve” method.

“This will allow the city to present the fire assessment to the Circuit Court and have the judge validate the methodology and the ability to impose the assessment and to pledge the revenues to repay a loan for a fire truck,” Roe said.

“Ready to serve” has been validated in numerous cities, Roe said. It has never been challenged in court. If it is, it will be expedited to the Court of Appeals, then to the Supreme Court rather than spend years in the system, costing cities great expense and resources.

The city’s former law firm, Nabors and Giblin, reportedly backed out of this case because it was more comfortable with the “call to service” method it has worked with for years.

Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz wanted to hear it from the horse’s mouth, saying he was “disheartened” that numerous calls to Nabors and Giblin didn’t return numerous calls.

“Why did our full-time bond council choose not to participate,” Chulakes-Leetz asked City Attorney Dolores Menendez, before turning to Roe and saying, “I find it interesting that you also represent Burton & Associates.”

“Giblin isn’t with us because they don’t do this methodology. I want someone who has done this and is comfortable,” Councilmember Marty McClain said.

And while there were other concerns, such as how an assessment would affect the city’s bond rating, it came back to relying on one method to raise revenue.

“In 2007 property values were $20 billion. Today, it’s $9 billion. Do the math,” McClain said. “What happens when you lose half your pay? How is a city any different?”

After the discussion got sidetracked by a debate about buying new equipment, CouncilmemberLenny Nesta called a point of order for a vote. The ordinance passed 6-2, with Chulakes-Leetz and Mayor John Sullivan dissenting.

The ordinance will also change the way the city handles those who don’t pay assessments. Rather than go into foreclosure proceedings, since a lien is placed on the property, the city will wait until next year when the assessments are collected on the tax bill and turn it over to the tax collector.

“A lot of time and resources go into that. The city attorney would outpace a $500 assessment tenfold with all the work,” Roe said. “The tax collector would do it in his normal duties. Much more cost efficient.”