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County Council: It's all or nothing on fire fees; second opinion sought — Will fees get past courts?
By Pat Andrews
posted Jun 27, 2013 - 10:25:56am
It will be all or nothing on the matter of fire fees for Volusia County.
That what the County Council decided June 20, when the discussion arose about whether to get fire services money from taxpayers by charging a flat fee, to continue to collect the funds through ad valorem property taxes, or to use some combination.
A question remains about whether the county can fund both fire services and emergency medical services provided by firefighter crews with flat fees instead of property taxes. The county will seek another legal opinion.
At its June 6 meeting, County Council members had said they wanted the help of a consultant to figure out how to structure fire fees, which would be charged in unincorporated areas of the county.
As soon as the topic came up June 20, County Council Member Doug Daniels asked County Attorney Dan Eckert if it would be possible to get 100 percent of the funding through fees, since the Volusia County Fire Services provides emergency medical help, advanced life support, and other medical services, in addition to firefighting.
So far, in counties where a fee is charged for fire services, such as Marion and Brevard, medical services are still funded through ad valorem taxes. That's because the courts have ruled that a fee imposed on property must demonstrate a benefit to the real property, and medical services don't qualify.
Eckert said it's "unlikely" a fee would be allowed to cover everything.
Council Member Josh Wagner said he's not interested in a fire fee, if it won't cover all Fire Services expenditures. If there's a split, the portion collected on millage or property taxes will grow every year, defeating the purpose of a flat fee, which is being touted as a way to share costs more fairly.
Eckert said, with a combination, the fees would have to be evaluated every year to assure they are paying only for firefighting, and not for emergency-medical services.
Both the local firefighters' union and Volusia Fair Tax group support the fee, saying everyone will pay "their fair share" of the cost. The firefighters also see the fee as a means of closing a budget gap, so that firefighters don't have to be laid off or stations closed to save money.
The county is talking about reducing staffing and overtime to reduce costs, which would sometimes leave stations unattended.
Eckert reiterated that the Florida Supreme Court and district courts have ruled against municipalities that have imposed a fee for medical services.
Nevertheless, Wagner said he wants to try it.
"If this comes back on us, we can adjust the millage. If I'm wrong, we're not fined," he said.
Eckert warned such a plan could "cause a lot of disruptions" and potential legal problems for the county if, for example, a property owner failed to pay pay the fee and his or her property comes up sale by the county as a result.
Council Member Pat Northey said she respects Eckert's governmental expertise in the law. Ending up in court and refunding money to taxpayers is "not good government," she said.
The County Council voted 6-1, with Northey opposed, to seek a second legal opinion on the fees. In the meantime, county staff is to start looking for a consultant to work with the county, but no consultant will be hired unless it looks like 100 percent of Fire Services costs can be collected via a flat fee.
Currently, residents in unincorporated Volusia County pay a millage rate of 3.6315 to fund Fire Services. On a house valued at $100,000 after homeowner's or other exemptions, that works out to $363.15.
If a flat fee is imposed, owners of larger and more expensive homes could pay less than they do now, while owners of less-valuable property could pay more.
How the fire fee would be calculated for commercial and industrial properties hasn't been discussed.
Right now, for example, the buildings and property at Sparton Electronics in Deleon Springs are assessed at $4.3 million. The company paid $15,792 to fund Fire Services in 2012.
And, no property taxes are currently imposed on governmental buildings, churches and non-profit agencies. That could change, also.
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