Lawsuit Drives Local Officials To Consider Charging Fire Fees Through Property Taxes

Dec 8, 2014

Credit Heather Paul

Tallahassee is facing a lawsuit over the way it collects funds to pay for the area’s fire protection services. The city and county are considering a plan to change that collection policy during two public hearings scheduled for this week, but the lawyers bringing the case argue the city’s tenants would still deserve a reimbursement.

Right now, the city collects a fire services protection fee though citizens’ utility bills. But Miami Attorney Matthew Lines calls that fee an unconstitutional tax.

“The way that taxes are supposed to work in Florida is that you get taxed on the value of your real-estate and the government is supposed to use those taxes to pay all the various things it has to pay like for police services and everything else,” Lines says.

Lines is working to address the assessment with a group of attorneys including Tallahassee lawyer and Florida State University professor Steve Bailey. Bailey says when the city imposes that fee through utility bills it’s especially difficult for low income renters.

“You know, you don’t put people’s street camera or traffic tickets on utility bills. You don’t put their parking ticket on utility bills," Bailey says.  "You don’t put all these things on utility bills because when you cut off somebody’s utilities, they don’t have utilities!”

Bailey’s group is pushing for a class action lawsuit, a move Assistant City Attorney Cassandra Jackson says the city plans to fight. She maintains there’s no problem with the city’s current collection method.

"Cities have the authority, based on their home rule powers to collect for municipal purposes by way of a fee and that’s what this is. It is not a tax. It is based on the property that is being benefited," Jackson says.

But in the meantime, city and county officials have scheduled public hearings this week to discuss a new method for charging the fire service protection fee. The plan would tack that cost onto citizens’ property taxes instead. Jackson says if the commissions okays the new method it would give city officials the ability to collect the fee either way, meaning the city could react more quickly if the lawsuit goes in Bailey’s favor.

And Bailey says even though adding the assessment to residents’ property taxes would mean higher taxes for homeowners and could by extension lead to higher rent for tenants, he thinks it’s the best move in the long run.

“Tenants will be aware of it. They know what their rent is. It’s all about, usually notice,” Bailey says.

And Bailey says even if the city and county do change the billing method for the fee, the lawsuit is likely to go forward. He thinks the city’s renters deserve a refund.

“Somebody has paid, basically their landlord’s property taxes for the past X number of years. The fire service special assessment. They get their money back. They’ve been paying something that the landlord was supposed to pay," Bailey says.

The county commission will hold a public hearing on the change Tuesday, followed by a city commission hearing scheduled for Wednesday.