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City fire assessment another step closer to reality

By Staff | Jul 31, 2013

The Cape Coral City Council moved one step closer to ratifying the controversial fire assessment by passing two measures during Monday’s regular meeting at City Hall.

The council passed the initial resolution for the imposition of the fire assessment, as well as approving the law firm of Bryan Miller Olive as its bond counsel in connection with the methodology of the assessment.

Both votes went 6-2, with Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz dissenting.

Mike Burton of Burton & Associates and Chris Roe of Bryan Miller Olive ran down the formal numbers with the council and the reasons there were doing it.

The fire assessment, using the “ready to serve” methodology, would pay for 64 percent of all firefighting and first responder costs, or about $20.2 million of the expected $32 million cost to fund the department. The assessment could increase to as much as 72 percent in the next 10 years.

The methodology would use two tiers. The first, which is apportioned equally among all land owners, whether there is an improved structure there or not, would charge everyone a flat $104.38, which would cover 70 percent of fire protection costs.

The second tier would be to charge according to the value of the improved property, which will be $2.46 for every $5,000 of structure value. In other words, a $200,000 home would carry a tier two assessment of $98.40. The total would be $202.78.

Some during public input hardly saw this methodology as fair. Ed Morris said “ready to serve” didn’t pass the smell check.

“Over three years, the average calls were 16,588, of which 233 were for fires. How can you justify 30 percent for that?” Morris asked.

Roe said the Florida Supreme Court ruled that first response is a fire service, and that the “calls for service” method doesn’t give an accurate gauge on benefit.

The mailing and publication of notices will come Aug. 6, with the public hearing set for Aug. 26.

With that assessment, which will go into effect after the Oct. 1 start of the 2014 fiscal year, will also come a one mil ad valorem decrease, which will be shown on the tax bill that will go to tax payers early next year as a credit.

Some council members, such as Derrick Donnell and John Carioscia, thought it might be better to reduce the millage rate a quarter point upon adoption and the rest when the bill goes out early next year.

“We will issue a credit against the assessment and that doesn’t make sense to people. That’s where the problem lies,” Donnell said.

“We aren’t going to spend that $6.5 million in one shot. It will only be in the second quarter,” Carioscia reasoned before it was shot down as making a complicated issue even more so.

Of course, the methodology has to be approved by a judge in order for it to become a reality. Thus the reason City Manager John Szerlag called upon Bryan Miller Olive to be its bond council.

“If you have a heart problem, would you go to your local doctor or to the Mayo Clinic?” Council member Kevin McGrail said. “They have specialized in the ‘ready to serve’ methodology.”

Indeed, “ready to serve” has been argued against three times, and three times the methodology has stood, McGrail said.

The fire assessment and the accompanying millage decrease are two legs in the “three-legged stool” approach Szerlag has taken to diversify revenues for the city. The public service tax was passed in June.