Public input time allotted at Monday's City Council meeting turned into a sometimes heated discussion of the pending fire service assessment.
Attorney Scott Morris, who represents a group of residents who are challenging the methodology used to determine the assessment fees in court, asked the council to agree to a 20-day extension for his filing of appeal documents with the State Supreme Court. The Circuit Court recently upheld the city's assessment as a valid tax.
Morris pleaded for the extension, saying he received a threatening letter in the mail with handwritten crosshairs drawn over his picture. He alleged the letter was sent by a local Fraternal Order of Police organization, which it has denied. The FOP is not an organization under the city's control. Morris said the letter has kept him from effectively representing the citizens' group.
Council members were not supportive of any further delay, expressing the city's need for capital investment funds that the assessment will provide. The city has not budgeted for capital improvement funds since 2009.
"I think the council needs to move forward with this as soon as possible," said Councilmember Rana Erbrick. "When I saw Chief (Don) Cochran this morning he assured me everything was fine. In the afternoon, two fire trucks had gone down. If that doesn't scare the heck out of you, as residents, it should."
Councilmember Jim Burch said, "We are not relying on the court case. This is what is best for the city."
During the discussions, Morris was asked if he filed a simple police report about the threatening letter. He responded that he had notified state and federal authorities.
"You didn't file a police report with Cape Police or the Lee County Sheriff?" asked Erbrick. "So you went outside the area?"
Morris nodded affirmatively and later mentioned the FBI.
"All I'm asking is for the council to publicly condemn the threat against me," said Morris.
Council, though sympathetic, thought it was not its place to do so since the letter did not originate from staff or employees under their control.
Police Chief Bart Connelly told the council, "I spoke with the FBI today and they have not received any kind of report from Mr. Morris."
According to City Manager John Szerlag, "The overall average, the city has an 85 percent chance to win this court case. Previous councils balanced the budget by neglecting to budget for capital projects. Most places budget 10 to 20 percent of their revenue to capital projects. Ours at 20 percent would be $30 million a year. That's how we got here."
Council rejected Morris' pleas for an appeal extension even though any such acceptance ultimately rests with the Supreme Court. Council also authorized its legal representatives in the case to ask the court to dispense with oral arguments, which would speed up the process. As it is, if Morris' appeal is filed, the city would have 20 days to respond and Morris would have 10 more days to reply to the court before it makes a ruling.
"You took this threat to the media and brought it to this council," said Councilmember John Carioscia, "but you haven't done the most simple of all acts to make a police report.
"We want this to move forward," added Carioscia. "The necessity for equipment replacement is at a critical stage. That changes everything."
Council also revisited its vote last month not to go ahead and bill property owners for the assessment and put the money in escrow until the Supreme Court rules. A new resolution to authorize the billing will be brought to council for another vote.
"This has already been ruled a valid tax," said Councilmember Richard Leon. "More and more residents are contacting the city with a need for infrastructure improvements."
Should the Supreme Court rule against the city, the money collected would be returned to property owners which would cost the city an estimated $140,000. If the court rules in favor of the city, the $12 million the assessment is expected to generate would be available that very day.