Marco Island fire assessment moves step forward

Jun 13, 2008

Property owners may see another assessment added to tax bills

Marco Island Eagle--June 12, 2008

Discussions of a fire assessment may turn up the heat on Marco Island City Councilors. Some view the fire assessment as a way to make the costs of fire service more equitable between property owners while others see the assessment as simply another bill.

The ordinance going before council Monday evening does not set the amount property owners could pay. The assessment amount would be determined annually by council after the ordinance is passed.

The purpose of the assessment, according to Fire Rescue Chief Michael Murphy, is to make the way people pay for fire service fair. Currently there is a large disparity between the taxes paid by property owners who have equally valued property.

“I do believe that the Fire Rescue Assessment methodology gives fairness and residents and businesses can see value,” Murphy said.

Fire service makes up about 26 percent of the tax bill. If an assessment were added to the bills received in the fall and property tax rates were proportionately lowered, then the assessment could diminish the disparities.

However, the assessment may also allow councilors to increase everyone’s tax bill, leaving some residents to question what’s so fair about it.

“If there is anything done with a fire assessment, I can’t imagine council passing the same tax rate as last year,” said Councilor Jerry Gibson, adding that his opinion may not be shared among the entire council.

Council voted (6-1) in May to go forward with the process to allow for an assessment. Councilor Ted Forcht was the only councilor to oppose it.

“The idea behind this is to get the people who use the most Fire and Allied services to pay the most. On the surface I think that is fair. But I think this looks a lot like a new tax. I’ve been told I’m wrong,” Forcht wrote in an e-mail to constituents.

He added that supporters of the assessment “are going to have to sell the truth… I’m not supporting anything I don’t understand.”

Gibson said he voted to move this forward in the past in order to leave the option for an assessment open in case of a significant shortfall once the full impact of legislative property tax reform and decreased property values were known.

Another reason to back continuing the fire assessment process was because the fact that one year and $100,000 had been spent on the feasibility study.

The city is looking at an approximate $1.8 million decrease in general funds revenue if there are no adjustments to the tax rate and no added assessments.

Last year the tax rate decreased, but tax payers were faced with significant assessments to connect to the city sewer. The assessments added thousands to the amount paid by many tax payers while savings were often in the hundreds of dollars or less.

“This will not reduce the same amount on the ad valorem tax base,” Biles said speaking from last year’s experiences.

Murphy maintains that the assessment will remain within the spending cap, which limits city expenditures to no more than three percent plus COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustment) higher than the previous year.

“I’ve been told that this ‘assessment’ is under the Cap. Well, I’m just a simple cracker but I know that if it walks like a Gull, squawks like a Gull and flies like a Gull, it’s probably a Gull,” Forcht said.

Several tax payers are looking for a detailed explanation as well.

“I know that Chief Murphy wants a new fire engine… More people, more money, more increases. We want an explanation how it can stay under the 3 percent spending CAP,” said Fay Biles, president of the Marco Island Taxpayers Association.

Members of the Marco Island Taxpayers Association (MITA) say they want to see the people of Marco Island decide through a referendum, or vote by residents, making this summer possibly mirror last summer in terms of islanders choosing whether to assess themselves a new bill to be paid to the government.

MITA members voice additional concerns.

“There is no way taxpayers can stop increases once this is finalized,” Biles explained, adding “Why now? Why do this when the County is trying to get all the fire departments to consolidate?”

The fire departments and EMS in Collier County have discussed consolidation since before Marco Island was a city. EMS can only be paid through ad valorem taxes and Murphy said the study removed EMS costs.

Ninety-one percent of the Marco Island Fire Department’s budget is spent directly on providing fire service and the other 9 percent is spent on EMS, he said. The study on the portion of cost of services by fire versus EMS was conducted by Government Services Group.

Hundreds of Florida taxing districts have fire assessments and the Florida Supreme Court ruled they were legal in 1997 because fire service has a direct impact on property value.

Fire service protects properties and their values in the case of a fire as well as lowering property owners’ insurance.

If council adopts the first reading Monday, the second reading will establish the Fire Rescue Assessment. The second reading is scheduled for the July 24 City Council meeting.

Another opportunity to discuss the fire assessment will also take place 7 p.m. Thursday in the Community Room, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.

Councilor Chuck Kiester is hosting the forum which will discuss other hot topics such as the replacement of the Jolley Bridge, the city takeover of electricity and other budget issues.

Other items on Monday’s regular City Council meeting agenda include:

-The final reading of an ordinance regulating signs, advertising and the sharing of unsolicited information on public property.

-Discussion of regulations controlling how Marco Island restaurants dispose of grease.

-Discussion of the short term rental housing draft ordinance.

The City Council meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Community Meeting Room, near the police station, 51 Bald Eagle Drive.