City and county staff members still working to resolve fire assessments dispute dating to September 2015

County’s emergency services director says he expects a new ordinance with updated methodology to be in place by the spring of 2017

Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. News Leader photo
Emergency Services Director Rich Collins. News Leader photo

Sarasota County staff is continuing to work with Assistant City of Sarasota Attorney Michael Connolly and other city staff to resolve a dispute over fire assessments that arose in conjunction with the County Commission’s adoption of its budget and assessments for the current fiscal year.

During the county board’s May 18 budget workshop, County Administrator Tom Harmer explained that fire assessments are “based on the type of occupancy and the size of the occupancy …”

Rich Collins, director of emergency services for the county, told the board that he and his staff are working with representatives of Government Services Group (GSG) — a Florida-based consulting firm — to review and update the methodology used for the fire assessments. That methodology has been in place since 1996, he pointed out, and although it was updated in 2003, “much of the same formulation” has been used since then.

GSG worked with the county on the original methodology, Collins continued.

The potential exists for some changes in classifications, he added, which would result in rate changes.

Because of code changes in new software the county Property Appraiser’s Office used for assessments last year, Collins explained, “that brought some city-owned properties into question …”

On Sept. 14, 2015 — during the County Commission’s first public hearing on the 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.

In late October 2015, Harmer sent a letter to City Manager Tom Barwin, saying the county was removing the disputed parcels from its fire assessments list for that tax year.

The city ultimately filed a lawsuit against the county over the matter, but the suit never was served on the county, Connolly noted in a May 19 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader. “We are trying to work things out at the staff level,” he added. “I’m just hopeful that we can agree” without the need to pursue litigation, he said.

A City of Sarasota list shows all the pieces of property on which Sarasota County originally proposed to levy assessments. Image courtesy City Attorney's Office
A City of Sarasota list shows all the pieces of property on which Sarasota County originally proposed to levy fire assessments. Image courtesy City Attorney’s Office

In his October 2015 letter, Harmer pointed out that “a third party review [was] being initiated” in regard to the fire assessments, and he anticipated it would be completed in preparation for the 2017 fiscal year budget.

On May 18, during the County Commission workshop, Collins said GSG is expected to finish its work “around the beginning of October.” He anticipated coming back to the board in the winter of 2017, he added, with a recommendation for changes in the ordinance governing fire assessments. He anticipated completing the work in the spring of 2017, he said.

Public outreach will be undertaken throughout the process, Collins said, including the preparation of the 2018 fiscal year county budget.

Harmer added that fire assessments will stay the same for the 2017 budget. GSG representatives will validate the fire tax roll, he noted.

A graphic shows projections for the county's fire fund. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows projections for the county’s fire fund. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As for the county’s fire assessment fund: Harmer reported during the budget workshop that it is facing “more pressures” than some of the other reserve funds in the county that reflect fees and assessments, but no shortfalls are expected through FY21. Still, he said, “it is something that we will need to watch.”

A graphic shows projections for the county's EMS fund. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows projections for the county’s EMS fund. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Unlike the fire assessment fund, Harmer explained the county’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) fund holds revenue linked to a “set millage rate to cover [EMS] expenses …” Reserves are maintained at a level to cover up to 60 days of operations in the event of hurricane strikes or other disasters, plus up to 60 days in the event of an economic downtown. Revenue that surpasses the total of those two parts of the fund is projected to decline from FY17 through FY19, Harmer noted, before rising again in FY20.

Both the EMS and Fire funds are used to pay for the operations of the Sarasota County Fire Department and county EMS, he added.