Okeechobee City Council decides against fire tax

OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee City Council put the halt to a fire assessment that would have generated over $522,000 in new revenue in a unanimous vote after a public hearing Tuesday.

They did so despite convictions from many council members that eventually the city will need to develop new revenue sources. The council might also have to make changes to the proposed budget for 2016-2017.

Erick Van Malssen, consulting manager, opened the meeting with a report of a fire assessment study the city commissioned from his employer, Burton & Associates. He explained the city pays for fire service from general fund dollars that are mostly property taxes. He added the state allows the city to impose the assessment for specific services.

“There are less exemptions, it is a more predictable source of revenue and they insulate from property value fluctuations,” he said.

The proposal would fund 25 percent of the costs of fire protection. The city last week proposed a half mill property tax decrease.

The fire study recommended each residence pay $119 for the first year and $144 in 2017-2018. The non residential would pay $0.08 cents per square foot.

The proposed city fire budget for 2016-2017 exceeds $2.09 million.

A call for services analysis used four years of historical data, from 2012-2015, to determine how to assess residential, non residential and vacant land. The city fire department responded to 1,080 calls in the past four years with 46 percent of them to residential.

Fifty-five residents and visitors filled the council chamber for the hearing.

The original proposal included assessments on churches and non-profits.

That suggestion brought out the lion’s share of comments at the meeting.

Allen Patterson of Okeechobee Presbyterian Church objected to the new assessment.

“This is not an attack on first responders, we strongly object to this tax on churches,” he said.

He said his church provides services to the community like a food pantry.

He said the tax would be paid for by church members who are taxed on their homes and businesses.

Daniel Stearsman, minister at the Okeechobee Church of Christ, said his church is a public servant. He asked the council to consider an exemption for churches. “We help people during the valleys in their lives to lift them up,” he said.

Resident Devin Maxwell, a former councilman, said the assessment will hurt local business. He said the tax is untimely because the community has not recovered from the recession.

“There are a lot of vacant buildings and no demand for commercial real estate,” he added.

He said national franchise stores are better equipped than local business to pay this bill. He noted landlords would have to impose the increase on tenants.

“I appreciate you looking out for locally owned businesses,” he said.

Presbyterian Church Pastor Loy Mershimer said the proposal took the Okeechobee Ministerial Association by surprise. He quoted Daniel Webster’s comment, the power to tax is the power to destroy and emphasized the separation of church and state. He said the country is moving toward a post Christian period. “Are we sure that we should remove we trust in God on our money? I think not,” he added.

Frank Irby said the city should offset this fee with lower property taxes.

Roughly 200 properties in the city pay no taxes. Mr. Irby alleged the city has paid $38,000 for a study to collect $20,000 from people who pay no city tax.

Mr. Irby said the city audits show the city collects more money than they spend in recent years.

“If you want to charge for the service do it, it’s fair, it benefits everybody. If you don’t have the service you’d pay for it another way like insurance,” he said.

Mayor Kirk said no one on the council would allow this fee to go on churches, “If it did I’d be the most shocked person in the world.”

American Legion Post 64 also objected to the assessment as unfair. As a non-profit they couldn’t be assessed if churches are not assessed.

Contractor Mac Worley said he supports the fire assessment but that several churches and non-profits should not be exempted. Mr. Worley said if the city has to impose more taxes to improve business opportunity, he supports it. “We must create a better environment. My business depends on opportunity. Are people coming here and spending money?” he asked.

He suggested an assessment so the city would have better landscaping.

The fire assessment must be renewed every year. If there is an increase proposed, public hearings are required.

Attorney John Cook said they would have to exempt all churches and non-profits and can’t pick and choose.

Each mobile home would pay $119 under the proposal.

Councilman Mike O’Connor said the city should wait until the economy got better. He said that would help people with commercial property.

“We can always go back to it, but, (delay) might be the wiser thing to do,” he said.

Councilman Gary Ritter said $119 a year is a lot of money to some folks. He also agreed mobile home parks would be burdened by a fee for each lot whether they are occupied or not.

“Do we really need to do this at this point in time?” he asked.

Councilman Noel Chandler said the assessment puts a burden on everyone.

He said the city is pretty sharp with their pencils and try to hold money in reserve. He said eventually the city will have to address this proposal again.

Councilman Dowling Watford said he likes assessments for services received.

“We had to move very quickly. We just got this study. We need to learn from this. When we do major things we need more time to study it,” he said.

He said the assessment would be a huge burden on businesses and residents would have a higher burden than they have now.

Mr. Watford said the city will have to adjust the proposed budget due to this decision.

Mayor Kirk said the city has delayed some projects that they should have completed.

He told the crowd that the city will have a deficit of over $330,000 this year.

“At some point this council will have to make a decision on how to balance the budget,” he added.

He emphasized the city has worked hard to not spend money.

“We are making large expenditures this year. At some point adjustments will have to be made. You can’t continue to take money out of an account that doesn’t replenish itself because eventually that money will be gone,” he said.

He predicted another proposal will come back up again unless the economy really improves.

The city clerk announced Jerry Johnson, Monica Clark, Ray Worley, and incumbent councilman Mike O’Connor qualified to run in the November election. Two seats will be elected this year. Mayor Kirk did not seek re-election. That means the city will have a new mayor for the first time in 22 years in 2017.

Okeechobee County does charge a per residence assessment for fire/rescue, and does include churches in the “fire tax.” City property owners do not pay the county fire assessment because the city has it’s own fire department. The county also charges an EMS assessment. Churches are not included in the EMS assessment.

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