City Hall was packed Wednesday with residents young and old, commercial property owners and attorneys opposing a large fire fee increase to both residential and commercial institutions. The public lost. The fire assessment for Margate households will jump 33 percent next year from $225 to $300 yearly and fire fees for nursing homes will increase 300 percent from $0.23 a square foot to $0.69 a square foot.(View Fiscal Year 2017-18 fire assessment rates for all categories at bottom of article)
Trust and confidence in elected officials and the process took a big hit at the public hearing Wednesday aimed at setting next year’s fire assessment - “a tool in the tool box,” as referenced by Commissioner, Lesa Peerman.
Homestead exemptions, including an upcoming one in November, put in a gaping dent in the city’s ability to collect property taxes from Margate condominium owners, many of whose properties are valued below the $100,000 range. As a result, city services may be underfunded, elected officials claimed.
"We are running at a deficit. We are deficit spending," announced Commissioner Anthony Caggiano.
For elected officials who say they listen to the people; the city commission did not Wednesday. The elected body did the opposite. Dozens of residents spoke against the fire fee increase, while a sparse few supported it if absolutely necessary. Others requested the city lessen the increase.
Problematic was elected officials and city staff provided no empirical evidence the assessment was needed, and city staff didn’t say whether a new fire house could be built without raising the fire assessment.
Impressively, many senior residents came to the meeting armed with information. A deaf gentlemen who spoke well, said he sat with city officials in Coconut Creek to learn why that city receives the same fire rescue services from the same fire department as Margate, but their residents pay $180 vs. Margate’s proposed $300. He told Margate elected officials Wednesday that Coconut Creek said they’ve never in the history of Broward County seen such a drastically high fire fee imposed on a city’s residents. The recipients of millions of dollars annually from the Coconut Creek Casino as part of an agreement with the Seminole Tribe, Peerman said Coconut Creek has financial flexibility that Margate does not.
Other seniors took to the microphone to say they haven’t received a social security increase in years and asked the city why it continues to spend beyond its means. Voting against the increase alongside Peerman (who originally motioned to maintain the fire assessment as is), Commissioner Joanne Simone agreed, stating that she believes the city should spend only what revenues it takes in and look for monies elsewhere in the budget rather than raise fees.
Many from the public who took to the microphone Wednesday said the city was not providing enough information to present a convincing argument. Some suggested downsizing salaries and benefits for employees while others said outreach efforts were inadequate and lacked transparency. Vice Mayor, Arlene Schwartz, said she was disappointed in city staff for a lackadaisical approach to informing the public on the proposed increase.
After listening to the entirety of public comments, Schwartz made two attempts at reducing the fee increase from $300 to $275 and again from $300 to $250. Neither motion received support from fellow commissioners.
While it was revealed by Mayor, Tommy Ruzzano, that the City of Margate maintains $25 million in reserve funds - some assigned, some unassigned, there was no mention of dollar amounts in the two categories or if monies could be pulled from reserves to replace fire station 58 in lieu of raising the fire assessment. The Director of Finance was not called on to speak to the feasibility of doing so.
Caggiano said taking money from already accumulated reserves to fund fire efforts was equivalent to raising the fire fee for residents in the future. “It all comes out of the same pocket,” he said, boasting a degree in economics.
It wasn’t until the end of the meeting that Fire Chief, Dan Booker, spoke to burns on his chest as a firefighter, which is the reason he doesn’t wear a bathing suit often - a comment nothing to do with a fire assessment. For members of the public who had left the meeting and were under the impression the increased fire fee was to replace fire station 58 due to mold infestation - Booker told those remaining in the room at 11 p.m. that mold in the fire station was remediated and no longer posed a health threat to staff.
Booker assured the public that if elected officials did not raise the fire assessment fire-rescue services would not suffer. (Click to view City Fire Fee Resolution)
Notably, the public has 20 days to file a court action in an attempt to stop the increase. In response to those at the meeting who suggested the increase go to referendum Florida State Statute 191.009 (taxes; non-ad valorem assessments; impact fees and user charges) specifically states:
“Non-ad valorem assessment rates set by the board may exceed the maximum rates established by special act, county ordinance, the previous year’s resolution, or referendum in an amount not to exceed the average annual growth rate in Florida personal income over the previous 5 years. Non-ad valorem assessment rate increases within the personal income threshold are deemed to be within the maximum rate authorized by law at the time of initial imposition. Proposed non-ad valorem assessment increases that exceed the rate set the previous fiscal year or the rate previously set by special act or county ordinance, whichever is more recent, by more than the average annual growth rate in Florida personal income over the last 5 years, or the first-time levy of non-ad valorem assessments in a district, must be approved by referendum of the electors of the district."
Given an average 5-year Growth Rate 4.1038% based on the last five years of Florida personal income, Margate elected officials may have overstepped bounds. Depending on interpretation, the aforementioned state statute may have only allowed a legal increase of roughly $25.
According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (US Department of Commerce), the five-year annual average increase for Florida Income is 4.1038%. (see research below) ________________
Margate Fire Assessment 2017: 225 2018: 300 This is a 33% increase
=225 *1.041038 = 234.23355
SA1 Personal Income Summary: Florida- Personal Income (thousands of dollars)