County Commission approves fire assessment settlement with City of Sarasota on 4-1 vote

Commissioner Christine Robinson voices concerns about policy implications for the future

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

A 4-1 vote of the Sarasota County Commission has ended an almost two-year-old dispute between the county and the City of Sarasota regarding fire assessments of city-owned property.

The County Commission action came during the board’s regular meeting on July 12, after County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained the background that led to the city’s filing suit against the county.

The City Commission approved the settlement agreement during its July 5 meeting, also on a 4-1 vote. In that case, Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie was in the minority. County Commissioner Christine Robinson cast the sole “No” vote on her board.

DeMarsh pointed out that the suit was filed after the county continued to assert its right to collect fire assessments on 13 city parcels, including those that are home to Mote Marine Laboratory and the Sarasota Orchestra. “They were exempt from ad valorem taxation,” DeMarsh said, but the county planned to assess the properties on the basis of information it had received from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office.

The total of the 13 assessments last year was $38,611.46, according to a June 28 staff memo provided to the board.

“We believe that there are arguments that we could advance to support the imposition of assessments where city property is not used for a traditional government purpose,” he continued. However, given “case law on the books right now,” the county would be looking at “lengthy and costly litigation.”

Therefore, DeMarsh told the board, his staff worked with County Administrator Tom Harmer and Rich Collins, the county’s emergency services director, to explore terms for a settlement. Under those terms, the county agrees that any city-owned property that receives an ad valorem tax exemption from the Property Appraiser’s Office would be exempt as well from fire assessments, “continuing into the future.”

DeMarsh also pointed out that county staff is working with a consulting firm, Government Services Group (GSG) to update the county’s fire assessment methodology. When staff asked GSG representatives their view of the situation, “we were told that we were one of two jurisdictions” to impose fire assessments on government-owned property that is exempt from ad valorem taxation. The consultants called the situation rare, DeMarsh said. “I’d call that very rare.”

A City of Sarasota list shows all the pieces of property on which Sarasota County originally proposed to levy assessments in 2015. 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 in 2015. The county soon eliminated three of them, including the city water tower. Image courtesy City Attorney’s Office

When Robinson asked for clarification that the “agreement doesn’t have an end date,” DeMarsh told her that was correct, but he stressed that it will apply only to specific parcels, as he had explained earlier.

If the city bought property outside the city limits, would it be exempt from the assessments, she then asked.

“It could,” he replied.

The City Commission has talked about purchasing property in the unincorporated part of the county to use for its Housing First approach to homelessness, Robinson noted. Would the fire assessment exemption apply in that type of situation, she asked.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

He believed such parcels would be exempt, DeMarsh responded.

“And the way we’re offsetting the payments is through in-kind contributions that we’re attributing to the city for fire?” she questioned him.

“That’s correct,” Collins told her.

A concern about the lack of any definitive list of such in-kind services, referenced in the agreement, prompted Freeland Eddie’s “No” vote on July 5, she indicated. City Manager Tom Barwin explained that regular city employee checks of water pressure and use of Sarasota Police Department personnel to manage traffic at scenes of fires could be considered in-kind services.

During the County Commission discussion, Robinson pointed out to her colleagues that the proposed settlement has “deeper implications” than they might perceive on the surface. “I like the idea of settling,” she added, “[but] I’m not a real fan of these terms …”

If the board approved the settlement, she continued, it would be setting a policy that essentially would be creating two classes of assessments.

Robinson also cautioned her colleagues that the City of Venice “for a long time” has been asking the county to reimburse it for the expense of rolling its fire trucks to assist with county emergency medical services calls. “Now we’re allowing a reimbursement” from the City of Sarasota, she said, referring to the in-kind services. “There may be a slight difference, but the concept is similar.”

When Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo then sought clarification from DeMarsh about the criteria for exemptions of city property for fire assessments, DeMarsh reiterated that the Property Appraiser’s Office would have to declare the parcels exempt from ad valorem taxation. The mere fact that the city might own property outside the city limits, DeMarsh added, is “not enough.”

Caragiulo made the motion to approve the settlement, and Commissioner Carolyn Mason seconded it. With no further discussion, it passed 4-1.