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Cape fire assessment approved

By Staff | Aug 27, 2013

You could see in his eyes when it was his turn to vote that Councilmember Derrick Donnell was agonizing over it. For nearly 30 seconds after his name was called, he winced and grimaced, knowing that whichever way he went, it would be painful.

Eventually, he voted “aye” with a 5-3 council majority, approving the controversial fire service assessment after several hours of debate during the regular city council meeting Monday at city hall.

Council also approved the companion ordinance to authorize the issuance of a $1.5 million fire protection assessment revenue note to but certain vehicles and equipment related to fire services, as well as begin the bond validation process.

Council approved “Option B,” which will drop the property tax rate a quarter point to 7.7070 and assess households for 38 percent of the cost of fire service operations. Taking into account the millage decrease, the new assessment for fire services and an approved tax on electric bills, the new “revenue diversification” tax plan would raise an estimated $20 million more per year, with an announced target impact of $150 per household.

Donnell, who a while earlier had said he would not support the fire assessment proposal because of the controversy that has ensued over the past several weeks, had a change of heart, remembering discussions he said he had with citizens over the weekend.

“The further we got into it, the more clear it became. My main issue was with the timing,” Donnell said. “That what we wanted to do, we couldn’t do it the way that we said. We had to do it in a different way.”

The original plan to raise $20 million more in revenue had a 64 percent assessment for fire services in tandem with a 1 mill tax decrease and an already approved 7 percent public service tax on electric bills.

But things changed in the last few weeks. First came the call for bond validation, which would have delayed the approval of the fire assessment until past the start of the new fiscal year.

Then on Aug. 12, the city’s bond counsel, Bryant Miller Olive, said it wouldn’t support a 1 mill decrease to go with the assessment. After a week of discussion, the city council arrived at two options; Option B, or option C, which would have delayed the fire assessment and millage decrease an entire year (assuming the assessment was validated) and given the city $6.5 million of the $20 million it wants for capital improvement projects.

That would mean, City Manager John Szerlag said, only a fraction of street paving and the replacement of vehicles and equipment only upon failure.

“This would jeopardize our quality of life, professionalism and public safety. It does not meet our strategic plan,” Szerlag said.

After a lengthy summation by Szerlag and Mike Burton of Burton & Associates, among others, the citizenry had its chance to speak, with very few willing to pay more.

“Florida Stature 166 alludes to the prohibition of fees for first responder service. This validation is a back-door approach to legalize the fee,” resident John Cataldi said.

“This is a shell game to spend more millions. Go back and cut employees and wages. Do the hard thing,” Don Kaczmareck said.

However, Daryl Teblun showed the council pictures of the road he on which lives, filled with potholes.

“I broke my back because the roads were broken. How can you say this is safe? I hope you move this forward,” Teblun said.

When it was time for council to speak, the reaction was equally mixed, with only four in favor of Option B, Councilmember Marty McClain being a vocal proponent.

“I didn’t see people coming in when their homes values plummeted asking to pay more taxes,” McClain said. “Live within our means? We had a council that tore this city up trying to prove it. We’re trying to be progressive.”

Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz were in favor of no new taxes at all.

Sullivan especially disliked the part of the assessment where someone who owns a quarter acre will pay the same as someone who owns a 50-acre parcel.

Meanwhile, Rana Erbrick had problems with Option B, especially since bond validation is not a given.

“I’ve had angst over the whole process. Every corner we turn something else pops up. No matter if we do it this year or next, it’s still $150,” Erbrick said.

Donnell was of the same camp, prepared to vote against Option B, when City Attorney Dolores Menendez opined their angst was over the unknown.

“This is the first bond validation we’ve had since the UEPs of the ’80s. It’s the new process that’s causing the confusion,” Menendez said. “The borrowing is being validated, not the assessment.”

That could have had sway on how Donnell voted. Whatever the case, he said he was ready for the fallout the following morning and that the alternative of simply raising the millage was no longer an option.

“To raise the millage to the level of what we need it to be will cap out at 10 and we still won’t be there,” Donnell said. “This gives us flexibility, but you know I’m coming out about the .75 millage with the .25 we have now. You know that.”