|Updated: 'No dice' on special assessment plan, says city|
|The Press - News|
|Written by Mike Anderson|
|Wednesday, 16 November 2011 15:26|
A week after county and Macclenny city officials sat down to begin discussing a plan to rely more on special assessments and less on property taxes for government services in the future, city officials folded on the issue.
The city commission unanimously decided to reject the idea on the evening of November 8 after expressing concerns about possible adverse impacts to city residents, who already pay county taxes as well as municipal taxes, and other unanswered questions.
“I’m not for giving anyone a blank check,” said Commissioner Phil Rhoden. “If we endorse the assessment fee tonight we would be handing them a blank check.”
For one thing, Mr. Rhoden and other commissioners said, they would want to know specifically how much county property taxes would be reduced for city residents if an assessment fee were levied. Secondly, they said, they would want assurances that the city would be part of any decision-making process to consider future assessment increases.But even more troubling to city officials was the question of legality. Currently, the only special assessment under consideration is for emergency medical services and City Attorney Frank Maloney said that, in his opinion, such a fee would not be legal.
He read portions of court cases, including a unanimous ruling in 2002 by the Florida Supreme Court, which he said held special assessments for rescue services to be illegal because the fees are supposed to benefit properties only.
“Such services benefit people, not property,” Mr. Maloney said, adding that a district court of appeal case in 2003 in Marion County arrived at the same conclusion and that the top attorney for the Florida Association of Counties has also expressed doubts about the proposed fee’s legality.
“I would not want to defend such a special assessment,” he said. “I don’t think it would fly.”
He said the Florida Supreme Court has upheld the validity of special assessments for fire protection and solid waste disposal, both of which the county has in place today, and for law enforcement, which county officials also are considering for another special assessment down the road.
The issue of special assessments, which function as flat fees paid by property owners, arose a few months ago when county commissioners were battling a budget deficit and eventually planned to pulled $2.2 million from emergency reserves to plug a gap in the 2011-12 budget to fill a revenue shortage.
Mayor Gary Dopson said he understands the financial dilemma the county faces and knows it must find a way to balance budgets in the future without having to continually draw down the reserves. But that’s the county’s problem, he said.
“They’ve got to solve the deficit somehow. But not at our expense,” said Mayor Dopson.
County officials point to widespread disparities in property tax bills throughout the county, which allows some owners to pay much less than others with similar properties.
Assessments, county officials argue, would be the same for all property owners regardless of property value, and many people who currently pay no property taxes due to property value exemptions available for homesteaded properties, would be subject to the assessment fees.
That’s the aspect of the county’s proposal that city officials favored, saying the cost of government services should be spread across a broader spectrum of property owners. But putting the legal issues aside, they still had far too many questions that remain unanswered for them to move forward with the county on the issue.
“There’s a lot of questions I need answered,” Mayor Dopson said. “I don’t want to add to what we’re already paying to help fund the county’s deficit.”
At one point during the meeting, the mayor asked if anyone in the audience was in favor of special assessments. Of about a dozen spectators, no one responded to the question.
But several spoke in opposition to any increases in taxes or fees.
“I am adamantly opposed to the special assessment — period!” said Jack Baker, a Macclenny resident and business owner. “There is no end to this recession. This economy is terrible.”
Mr. Baker owns several rental properties not eligible for homestead exemptions.
While residential property owners may receive up to a $50,000 exemption on the value of their properties, Mr. Baker said, “business owners get no break.”
Several other residents expressed similar sentiments, including Don Gaines, who said he owns property in the city and in the county.
“We’re already having a hard time surviving out here,” he said. “We can’t afford this kind of stuff.”
After about an hour and a half of discussion, which became repetitious, commissioners voted in favor of a motion by Mr. Rhoden to take no action unless further advised by the city attorney.
|Last Updated on Thursday, 17 November 2011 17:16|