City files — but holds off on serving — lawsuit over county fire-rescue assessments of city parcels

City attorneys say city and county staff still are trying to resolve the issue without pursuing a court case

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

The City of Sarasota has proceeded with filing a lawsuit against Sarasota County in the 12th Judicial Circuit over the county’s attempt this year to impose fire-rescue assessments on 13 city-owned properties.

However, in response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, John R. Herin Jr. of the GrayRobinson law firm in Fort Lauderdale wrote in a Nov. 3 email, “While the complaint has been filed, it has not, and will not, be served on the County until the informal dispute resolution meetings between the City and County have come to an end.”

City staff hopes those “meetings and dialogue will result in an amicable resolution to this dispute,” he continued, but “in an abundance of caution the City filed the complaint to protect its interests just in case.”

The suit was filed on Oct. 30. The judge assigned to the case is Rochelle Curley, according to court records.

The city hired GrayRobinson after it received Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices in August calling for the city to pay fire-rescue assessments on 16 parcels the city owns. The majority of those pieces of property are leased to nonprofit organizations in the community, including Mote Marine and the Sarasota Orchestra. Earlier this year, GrayRobinson won a lawsuit on behalf of the North Broward Hospital District City, whose property the City of Coral Springs had attempted to assess in a matter similar to the Sarasota City-County situation.

Subsequent discussions between the city and county over the past month led to the county’s dropping three parcels from the list.

In response to a News Leader request for comment, county spokesman Jason Bartolone wrote in a Nov. 4 email that the Office of the County Attorney had been notified of the filing of the suit. He confirmed that, as of that afternoon, the county had not been served.

Bartolone added in the email, “The county typically does not comment on pending litigation.”

County Administrator Tom Harmer. Rachel Hackney photo
County Administrator Tom Harmer. Rachel Hackney photo

During their Nov. 2 regular meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier advised the city commissioners to move forward with the lawsuit. He reminded them that although an Oct. 26 letter County Administrator Tom Harmer sent the city said the assessments would be dropped this year, the letter indicated that after a thorough review of all city and county assessments, the city might be looking at even more fees in the future.

Fournier added, “The letter can be read to say [county officials] can let [this] go for one year,” while county staff members make “their case stronger” for pursuing assessments.

The issue could be resolved, Fournier said, if county staff would explain how it defines a municipal or public use. City staff has been unsuccessful in obtaining such a statement, he added. “Over the past six weeks, there hasn’t been an explanation how a city-owned property would be subject to the assessment,” Fournier pointed out. “That is critical. I am not sure the county really knows.”

Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly won unanimous City Commission approval on Oct. 19 to file the lawsuit, given that such action had to take place by Nov. 3 or the city would lose its legal right to challenge the assessments on the August TRIM notices. Connolly explained at that time that he was concerned the county might purse not just assessments in the future but also ad valorem taxes on city-owned property.

Fournier added on Nov. 2, “I am hesitant to not file suit, because that would not look out for the public interest [of the city].”

Mayor Willie Shaw agreed that the city should continue with the lawsuit. “Please use the mail,” Shaw said, referring to the means of providing notice to the county.

The complaint

John Herin Jr. GrayRobinson oct. 2015
John Herin Jr. Courtesy image

In the complaint, Herin and Jeffrey T. Kuntz — also of GrayRobinson — argue that even though the county has been imposing its Fire Services Assessment since at least 1996, this is the first time the county has sought to levy such an assessment on city property. The total of the fees is about $38,611.46, the complaint adds.

The city parcels in question are “used for governmental purposes and [are] exempt from taxation,” the suit says. Further, it argues that the city property “is exempt or immune from assessment pursuant to Florida law,” as well as the County Code and county regulations.

The suit also says that the county violated Section 110-263(a)(1) of the County Code in failing to provide proper notice as required in a situation regarding property that has not been subject to a fire-rescue assessment in the past.

Additionally, the complaint argues during the development of the county’s assessment methodology, and all subsequent updates to it, the county “intentionally excluded government owned properties from the calculation of the private special benefit conferred by the provision of fire services and the fair and reasonable apportionment of the cost of the fire services against the properties benefited.”

The J.H. Floyd Sunshine Village assisted living facility was among the properties on the assessments list. Image from Google Maps
The J.H. Floyd Sunshine Village assisted living facility on 18th Street in Sarasota was among the properties on the assessments list. Image from Google Maps

It also says that the city property in question is used for governmental purposes, “and thus falls within the definition of ‘governmental use’ as defined in Section 110-253 of the Sarasota County Code”; that also makes the parcels exempt from the levy of the fire-rescue assessment.

Further, the suit points out that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser has determined that the property in question “is used for a valid tax-exempt public purpose …”

According to the Assessment Methodology Report for the county’s Fire Rescue District, the complaint continues, the city property “is ‘governmental property’ that was ‘excluded from the calculations [of the Fire Services Assessment.’ Furthermore, according to the [county], ‘government property provides a benefit to all other property that justifies its exclusion from the fire rescue assessment.’”

The complaint also points out that the city, as a Florida municipal corporation, “enjoys the protection of sovereign immunity,” so the city property is exempt from the levy of the assessments “because the [city] has not waived, explicitly or implicitly, sovereign immunity with respect to the Fire Services Assessment.”

Therefore, the suit says, the City of Sarasota requests that the court declare it unlawful for the county to levy assessments on property owned by the city and that the court require the county “to remove the City of Sarasota and its properties” from the county’s assessment rolls.

City Editor Roger Drouin contributed to this article.