Avoiding the prospect of lengthy litigation, the county and city have proposed a settlement in a fire assessments dispute that became public last year

The City Commission will consider the agreement on July 5; the County Commission, on July 12

Mote Marine is on Ken Thompson Parkway. Image from Google Maps
Mote Marine’s parcels, among the disputed group dating to last year, are on Ken Thompson Parkway. Image from Google Maps

If the Sarasota City and County commissions approve a proposed agreement this month, the county’s attempt to impose fire assessments on city-owned property should cease to be a concern for the city “forever out in the future,” Assistant City Attorney Michael Connolly told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

During a June 28 telephone interview, Connolly said that, after months of negotiations between city and county staff members, county representatives recently had agreed to exempt the city from fire assessments of any parcels the county’s Property Appraiser’s Office has certified for government purposes. “I’m very pleased,” he adding, noting that that was the “the significant part” of the city’s argument, which goes back to 2015.

The City Commission is scheduled to consider the settlement during its regular meeting on July 5, Connolly said. (The meeting is on Tuesday of next week because the July Fourth holiday falls on Monday, the city board’s normal meeting day.)

Then, county spokesman Jason Bartolone told the News Leader, the County Commission will take up the matter on July 12.

If both boards approve the agreement, Connolly pointed out, “In my mind, that resolves it forever out in the future.”

The county released the following statement to the News Leader on June 28 in response to a request for comment:

“Based on the proposed resolution, the county would continue to apply the fire assessment to government-owned properties in the city that had a clear private use. Those properties that are government-owned with a public purpose not subject to ad valorem taxes would be exempt. We are also exploring several options for in-kind services from the city in lieu of the assessments that would be agreeable to both parties.”

Assistant City Attorney Michael Collins. File photo
Assistant City Attorney Michael Collins. File photo

The statement further notes that the solution identified during the staff discussions “saves taxpayer funds that otherwise would have been spent through a lengthy litigation process.”

Copies of email correspondence the county provided at the News Leader’s request show Connolly seeking one last substantial change — on June 9 — as he and Assistant County Attorney David Pearce crafted the settlement agreement. Connolly asked that Pearce include the following paragraph: “Nothing herein shall be construed to limit or otherwise prohibit the City from seeking administrative or judicial review of any determination by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser (or its successor) and/or a corresponding adjustment in any fire assessment levied on non-exempt property.”

The history 

A memorandum prepared by the Office of the County Attorney, dated June 28, points out that, since 1996, the county has used “a non-ad valorem assessment to fund fire protection.” That methodology, it explains, “generally does not include government properties that have clear government use and purpose. For example, this includes structures such as court buildings, police stations, and fire houses.”

On Sept. 14, 2015 — during the County Commission’s first public hearing on its proposed FY16 budget — Connolly and John R. Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson, a Fort Lauderdale law firm hired by the city, made public comments protesting the county’s attempt to impose fire-rescue assessments on 16 city parcels, including the city water tower on Southgate Mall property. Connolly pointed out that the Property Appraiser’s Office had certified that all 16 of the parcels are used for government purposes “and therefore exempt” from the assessments.

Among other city properties targeted by the county were the three parcels comprising Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, the Sarasota Garden Club’s facility on Sixth Street and the Sarasota Orchestra property at 709 N. Tamiami Trail.

As recently as May 18, Rich Collins, director of emergency services for the county, told the County Commission that he and his staff were still working with representatives of Government Services Group (GSG) — a Florida-based consulting firm — to review and update the methodology used for the fire assessments. Although it was updated in 2003, he noted, “much of the same formulation” has been used since then.

Collins added that GSG was expected to complete its work in early October.

The lawsuit

John Herin Jr. GrayRobinson oct. 2015
John Herin Jr. Image courtesy GrayRobinson

The city initially filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in late October 2015 over the fire assessments, but it held off on service of the lawsuit while negotiations were underway with the county. Discussions between staff members soon eliminated three of the original 16 parcels, leaving those used by Save Our Seabirds, Mote, the Ann & Alfred Goldstein Marine Mammal Center, Sarasota Garden Club, U.S. Masters Swimming, Art Center Sarasota, Sarasota Orchestra and the J.H. Floyd Sunshine Village assisted living center, along with four vacant single-family residences, the June 28 county memo explains.

On Feb. 17, court records show, the GrayRobinson team filed a summons, seeking to have the complaint served on County Commission Chair Al Maio.

“After receiving the Complaint,” the county memo continues, “the Office of the County Attorney researched the relevant case law regarding the issues raised therein.” Although the staff of that office “believes that there are several arguments that can be raised to defend the assessments, the litigation may be long and costly, because it would most likely include an appeal to the Second District Court of Appeal, and thereafter the Florida Supreme Court,” the memo adds.

“Further research by GSG revealed that other counties generally do not impose fire assessments on government-owned properties regardless of the use,” the memo pointed out.

On March 7, Assistant County Attorney David Pearce filed a motion seeking an extension of the period for filing an answer to the complaint, which was due March 14, the motion noted; Pearce asked for a delay to May 2. Pearce subsequently filed a third and a fourth motion to request extensions, according to court records.

Assistant County Attorney David Pearce. Rachel Hackney photo
Assistant County Attorney David Pearce. Rachel Hackney photo

The last one — filed on June 27 — said the county’s answer was due on July 1, but Pearce wanted to delay it until Aug. 1.

That motion says Pearce “has asked counsel for the City whether they object to an extension,” and both parties had agreed to the Aug. 1 date. All the while, the talks between the city and county representatives were continuing, Pearce’s email exchanges with Connolly show.

All that remains at this point is for the City and County commissions to approve the settlement agreement.