In what ended up to be about a three-hour and 15-minute discussion of how fire assessment fees might be charged here by the Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District ended with no decision and board members planned to come back and opt for a decision at a meeting scheduled for April 29.
Larry Becker, chairman of the fire board and four of his co-members, David Adams, Cathy Kruse and Linda Carter debated, discussed, and asked questions from legal experts and listened to anyone who wanted to make a suggestion, at the meeting held last week. Commissioner Jackie Dannis, had an excused absence. She was unable to attend the meeting last month, too. However, she is able to listen to the recorded sessions of both meetings.
And as expected, the board officially resolved to put the assessment question on the ballot in November, rather than in the summer primary because of the time it has taken to come up with the way the department should be funded and be able to explain the reasons to the voters who will be asked on the ballot to okay or reject the assessment fee plan.
Overall, members of the board are unable to come up with fees that members believe are low enough and fair enough for all the home and land owners of Lehigh and those who are absentee owners.
At this last meeting, Heather J. Encinosa came from Tallahassee to offer advice at the meeting. She is regarded as an expert attorney on special fire districts and financing and would be called upon to defend any action the board may take if it were to face litigation.
Also on hand were Jeff Rackley, senior project manager with GSG (Government Services Group) and Camille P. Tharpe, senior vice president of GSG, with offices also in Tallahassee. All three attorneys are being paid for their services to the board, after a recommendation made by their own board attorney Richard Pringle, a few months ago when the topic of assessment fee funding of the department came up for discussion.
Between 30 and 40 people attended last week's meeting at the East County Water Control District's large conference room. The group was not silent as it listened to the board discuss the latest round of how to assess properties in Lehigh, this time using square feet as a way to measure the costs for properties that needed fire service. In the past the department has been funded through an ad-valorem tax and it has been capped and the department must find another way for the community to finance the fire board or face layoffs and closings of fire stations and even ambulance service.
The reason for finding another way to bring in funding is because of the Great Recession and the lowering of property and home values which in turn brought in less money through ad valorem taxes.
There are reserves, but the department knows such funds can be depleted fast if not enough revenue is generated to run the department, the largest in Lee County.
Becker had suggested at the last meeting that GSG's Jeff Rackley come back with a methodology for assessments by charging so much per square foot of a residence, his reasoning being that those with smaller homes, would not have to pay as much as those who larger homes. He also asked for ways to assess vacant properties.
Fellow Commissioner Linda Carter was on the same track, but disagreed, saying she thought that every property in Lehigh should be levied the same assessment fee. That sentiment seemed to be popular at last week's meeting with many in the audience speaking to the board formally using a microphone while others shouted out their support for a fair way in their minds to put an equal assessment on every property.
However, since last month, Becker says he has thought about his suggestion to Rackley and would amend his suggestion to get what he called "actual under the roof" square feet and figure assessments on those numbers.
He said he had talked to the tax appraiser for the county and that information could be obtained about each homeowner's dwelling and how many square feet it contained, not included an outside patio or other areas not under roof. Presently, all is considered in square feet on county tax records.
Commissioner Carter continued to recommend what she called "equal and fair for all," maintaining that owners of thousands of empty lots, be assessed the same way homeowners are.
Otherwise, Carter maintained that homeowners would be subsidizing owners of unimproved lots in Lehigh.
Under Becker's request to CSG, Rackley came back with a chart projected on the wall showing how square feet assessments could be done.
Without going into detail, figures showed that someone with a condo or home of 1,000 square feet would pay $140 a year. Rackley said it was simple match that the rate per unit would be 11 cents. He said there were 79,526,917 billing units (that included not only under roof, but garages, pools, patios, etc.) and that for fire protection it equaled 11 cents a square foot. For emergency medical service, the rate per unit was figured at 3 cents.
So a total of around 14 cents per square foot of space was offered as a way to assess residential units. For unimproved land or empty lots, a list of properties was presented showing there were 34,922 in Lehigh.
CSG presented a list, including sample properties in the community and what their assessment fees would be, based on acre lots and smaller.
The board could not decide in which direction it should go to assess properties in Lehigh, both residential and unimproved.
Those who attended seemed to prefer assessment fees that would be the same for all. Mohamed Yasin, a local community activist, agreed that everyone should be treated "fairly and equally," and then at the end of the meeting, thanked the board members, the fire chief and the staff for the "good work" they were doing and applauded their efforts for trying to come up with a workable fee.
However, both ways of assessing properties for fire districts have not been tested in court and Nabors Giblin & Nickerson attorney Heather Encinosa said it would be difficult to defend either as the assessment plans for Lehigh.
GSG's Jeff Rackley and Camille Tharpe said neither way of assessment was taking place in the state. They noted that if tested in court and if these types of assessments were found to be illegal, the fire district would have to pay for expensive court and legal fees and be responsible too if monies had to be paid back to the people.
Richard Pringle reminded the board that it must be able to put only so many words - 75 - on the ballot for the voter to decide an outcome in the November election.
Encinosa said it would be difficult in court to defend a policy to assess vacant land the same as residential properties.
Commissioner Carter said the community would not support any type of assessments unless they considered it was fair and equal for all and that included those who owned vacant lots. Carter also said she would vote no at the next meeting, but board attorney Pringle said he would have to check the legalities of a vote over the phone.
"I know you can discuss the issue over the phone, but I am not sure of whether you can vote over the phone for or against a resolution," Pringle said.
But Carter, who says she has to be out of town at the next meeting, said let it be known for the record that she would only vote if everyone shared equally in the funding of the department.
Chairman Becker, sometimes looking perplexed, urged anyone in the audience who had an idea to speak up.
Commissioner Cathy Kruse said the people of Lehigh must decide what type of fire service they want in Lehigh. Her statement reflected others who have said without proper funding, the department will lose firefighters, close down stations and response times, now recorded as one of the best in the state, would become less due to fewer firefighters and stations that may have been to be shut down.
Mohamed Yasin, who spoke often at this meeting and the last one in February, noted that Lehigh was unlike any other area in Florida with its number of platted lots and the high number of vacant wooded lots.
"We ought to test it. I'm telling you what I hear. We can make it work or we can falter.
"No one can tell me we can't do it, unless we try it (referring to one fee for all). The group applauded Yasin's suggestion.
Pointing to figures shown in a Powerpoint image on the wall, Chairman Becker told the attorneys that the plan could be "fine-tuned" by reducing the number of square feet of space to "under the roof" to be assessed.
"I want this to be fair and legal for the people. I don't want to something our attorneys say no to. We want what is fair for Lehigh," Becker said.
"Flat fees," "per square foot fees" and on it went. No decision and no resolution was made, except for board attorney Pringle's suggestion to get wording ready for the ballot and later fill in the numbers.
"But you can only have so many words," he repeated.
Commissioner Cathy Kruse said she "was not a gambler."
I am not willing to do that," referring to Carter's suggestion. "I like this methodology with some differences by eliminating square feet for patios and pools."
The next and probably most important meeting will be held at the ECWCD again in April, mainly because it has facilities for having someone away from the meeting being able to be a part of it via phone or video transmission. Carter wants to be part of the meeting while she is out of town.
The square foot assessment plan was preferred by the majority of those present on the board, except for Carter.
"We just need to fill in the blanks, as attorney Pringle has told us," Becker said.
"We want to make this fair for all our residents," Becker reiterated.
While the department has received in the past two federal grants from FEMA, no one can be assured a third grant will be made although Chief John Wayne said a third one will be sought.
That funding pays for firefighters' salaries. And in the past, the first grant was the reason for rehiring laid off firefighters due to budgetary restraints, and that came about with unions giving recessions.
Becker and others on the board in addition to the board attorney have repeated over and over that the department needs to make up its mind so it can "educate" the ratepayers in Lehigh, so they understand what they are voting for in November, and how important that vote may be.