With the assurance that any problems created by charging residents fees for fire protection can be fixed at a later date, a majority of city council members approved moving forward with the initiative.
By a vote of 4-1, council members Monday night approved an ordinance to implement fire fees on residents, in addition to taxing them for the same service, with plans to generate $600,000 in the general fund budget.
Council member Joe Bernardini was the lone dissenter.
The vote means that as council members move forward with budget discussions, they now have the option of implementing the fees to help offset any budget shortfalls.
They made clear, however, that in spite of intentions to lower the tax levy to roughly equal to the amount generated by the fees, there are no promises that residents will see a tax decrease and added that the levy could still increase.
Both Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn and Council member Kevin Hohn also agreed that without the fee structure in place, there are few options left to tackle any shortfalls.
According to examples of how the fees would be implemented, residential and business owners would pay a base fee of $106 along with .77889 per $1,000 worth of improvements to their property.
During the meeting, local attorney Joe Mason and real estate business owner Robert Buckner attempted to dissuade council members from moving forward with the fees — pointing to various portions of the plan they say create inequities between segments of the city population as to how much they would have to pay.
Buckner has previously pointed out that some vacant lot owners would be charged to pay the equivalent of an additional 5 to 10 mills on their land when compared to how much they paid in taxes, versus being forced to pay the additional fee.
Mason, who has been highly vocal on his criticisms of the fees, directly called the fees a disguised tax on residents and added that council members haven't properly discussed all the elements of the fee plan and are instead rushing to push the initiative through.
As a result, he argued there is murky language as to which non-groups are exempt from the fees, which include churches and temples, government buildings, some mortuaries and private schools.
"If this is truly revenue-neutral, then the people who were paying nothing would be paying something and the folks who were paying something would be paying less," Mason said. "But the people paying nothing are now paying something and the people paying something would be paying more."
Both Mason and Buckner then suggested council table the matter and instead include more constituents in planning to develop a fire fee method that would be more fair and equitable.
However, council members were unconvinced. Hohn said Monday's vote was only to approve the framework of establishing the fees and provide those as an option during future budget talks to tackle any funding shortfalls.
And with assurance from Mark Lawson, an attorney with the firm Bryant Miller and Olive, P.A., that provisions are built into the ordinance language to tackle issues as they arise, a majority of council members felt comfortable moving forward.
Other council members also agreed that the plan was the fairest one created thus far to help ensure that most all residents shared the burden to pay for fire protection. They have argued in the past that some residents don't pay anything for fire services through the state's homestead exemption.