City council members backed off from implementing fees on property owners for fire protection — in addition to taxing them — after hearing arguments about the unfairness of the plan from local business owners and in light of two council members being absent.
However, they will revisit the measure early next month when they have a full council present.
Mayor Joe Johnston III said he arrived to Monday night's public meeting prepared to vote in favor of the fire fees — until he was faced with only three council members, including himself, present and realized the measure would narrowly pass by a 2-1 vote.
Councilmen Frankie Burnett and Joe Bernardini were absent from the meeting.
Councilman Kevin Hohn, who in past meetings had supported the measure, changed his vote after hearing arguments from audience members who claimed the fees would unfairly penalize vacant-property owners and require some to pay more than double in taxes on their land.
Hohn said he still supports the fees plan. However, he said he believes council members have failed to educate the public on the fee process.
That left Vice Mayor Lara Bradburn as the only other council member supporting the fire fees. With such an important vote and two council members absent, Johnston said he couldn't in good conscious move forward and instead offered to table the matter until the July meeting.
Mark Lawson, an attorney with the firm Bryant Miller and Olive, P.A., that was hired to create the fire fee plan, said postponing the vote on the measure would make it difficult to implement it in time to use for the 2012-13 budget. However, Johnston was unmoved.
"I do apologize," Johnston said. "Philosophically, I can't do it."
From the start of the fire fee discussion, local lawyer Joe Mason, a critic of the fire fees, admonished the council for how it organized the public hearing and for seeming to move forward with the initiative with only three council members present.
But his largest criticism that he offered council members and city staff was that business owners and constituents — who expressed interest in being involved in fire fees discussions in 2010 — were left out of those talks.
Both Mason and real estate business owner Robert Buckner told the council that they spoke to the city manager after city council members backed off a different fire fee plan almost two years ago, and each said they were led to believe they could be involved in helping the city implement a fee system that was fair.
However, both agreed that never happened.
"You made the wise decision before to study the issue and involve stakeholders," Mason said. "It's inappropriate for a short council to make this decision. It's inappropriate to approve this when city staff ignored the council's decision to involve the stakeholders."
Buckner said he learned about the fire fees from reading the newspaper and added that it didn't take long in looking at the fee structure to see that it created an unfair burden on some property owners.
According to examples of how the fees are implemented, residential and business owners pay a base fee of $106 along with .77889 per $1,000 worth of improvements to their property.
Buckner said under the fee plan, those who own vacant lots would pay the equivalent of an additional 5 to 10 mills.
Both he and Mason also agreed that there is no guarantee that the city would lower the tax levy in an attempt to even out what taxpayers pay to the city, although council members have stated that they intend to do so.
Business owners were unconvinced, particularly after the council went back on its word in 2010 to lower the tax rate while attempting to implement fees. They instead opted to keep the tax rate the same.
After much criticism, the council did away with the fees.
But Bradburn argued that the new method was fair and added that while no plan will be completely fair across the board, the lot owners Buckner was referring to amounted to only a handful.
She received support from a representative of the Florida League of Cities and at least one resident who spoke in support of the measure Monday night.
"We've looked at a couple of methodologies for fire services and now we have this one that seems to be the fairest and equitable to date," Bradburn said.
Meanwhile, council members will revisit fire fees during their July 2 meeting. The matter could come down to a 3-2 vote.
So far, Bernardini and Hohn have withdrawn their support while Bradburn and Johnston support it.
That would leave Burnett, who has supported the measure thus far, as the swing vote.