Vice mayor casts only ‘No’ vote in City Commission’s approval of fire assessment agreement

Shelli Freeland Eddie explains her reservations about Sarasota County’s references to ‘in-kind services’ regarding the properties in question

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo
Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Mayor Willie Shaw. File photo

Having voiced reservations about what the city might be binding itself to do in the future in regard to “in-kind services,” City of Sarasota Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie cast the lone “No” vote on July 5 as the City Commission approved a settlement agreement with Sarasota County over fire assessments of city-owned property.

The matter is scheduled to come before the County Commission on July 12.

Deputy City Attorney Mike Connolly told the city commissioners during their regular meeting this week that the agreement on which he and Assistant County Attorney David Pearce collaborated “provides exactly what I’ve been arguing from Day 1”: The county no longer will attempt to impose fire assessments on city-owned parcels that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office has certified are those serving a governmental use.

The issue goes back to November 2014, Connolly explained, when the county originally targeted 24 city parcels. Ultimately, that was resolved administratively, he noted. However, the city’s 2015 tax bill included assessments of 16 city parcels, and only three of those later were removed through city/county discussions. The dispute over the remaining 13 led to the city’s hiring a Fort Lauderdale law firm, GrayRobinson, to assist it in a legal challenge of the county’s action.

GrayRobinson had won a similar case, Connolly reminded the City Commission on July 5, which was why he had recommended the hiring of the firm to assist the city.

His fear, Connolly pointed out, was that if the county were successful with the fire assessments, it might target city-owned property for ad valorem tax assessments in the future, “and that would be a significant burden.”

Deputy City Attorney Michael Collins. File photo
Deputy City Attorney Michael Collins. File photo

Connolly read from Paragraph 2 of the proposed agreement, which says, “In consideration of the dismissal [of the lawsuit the city filed against the county over the issue], the County acknowledges and affirms the County will not levy fire services assessments against the thirteen City-owned properties identified [in the agreement], or against any other City-owned properties, in any tax year to the extent those properties receive ad valorem tax exemption.”

The total of the 2015 assessments on the 13 parcels was “roughly $38,000,” Connolly explained.

However, Freeland Eddie told Connolly that the inclusion of language about in-kind services provided by the city in lieu of the assessments “seems a little loose.”

She referenced Paragraph 9: “The parties shall cooperate in the creation of a list of in-kind services the County receives from the City related to fire protection which offset the uncollected assessments.”

When Freeland Eddie asked him what was on that list, he replied, “There is no list yet.”

After county staff agreed to all future exemptions of city-owned property in regard to fire assessments — under the circumstances cited earlier — county staff added the language about in-kind services to the proposed document, Connolly said. He checked with John Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson, Connolly continued, and Herin indicated, “‘It apparently makes the county happy.’”

Connolly added, “So this is something the county obviously felt they needed to put in there in order to be able to justify the settlement.”

“What types of services are we binding ourselves to?” Freeland Eddie asked.

“We’re not binding ourselves to anything,” Connolly told her, noting, “I have no clue” what services the city already provides.

“And that’s why I’m kind of afraid,” she responded.

Connolly emphasized the language in Paragraph 2. As for Paragraph 9: Preparing a list “doesn’t cost anything,” he pointed out.

When Commissioner Liz Alpert asked whether anyone knew what services the city already provides, City Manager Tom Barwin explained that he would consider the city’s GIS mapping system a resource county Fire Department staff could utilize. He also mentioned city infrastructure and regular testing of water pressure at facilities. “There are many things that we do on day-to-day operations of the city,” he added, including times when the Sarasota Police Department handles traffic control at scenes of large fires.

Barwin said he expected staff could put together a list within 20 minutes.

City Attorney Robert Fournier added that he believed the county was seeking a means of memorializing the services the city already provides. The agreement “says nothing about future services,” he pointed out.

Continuing concerns

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

Freeland Eddie had assumed an old list existed, she said. “But it sounds like there has never been a list.”

Barwin responded that he could ask staff to put together a list, which he could provide to the commissioners during the evening session of the meeting.

When she then asked about the timeline for approving the settlement agreement, Connolly reminded her that the County Commission is scheduled to vote on it on July 12.

The City Commission could direct staff to append a list, Fournier said, but that probably would necessitate a continuation of the decision on the settlement.

Mayor Willie Shaw pointed out that that would keep the County Commission from voting on the matter next week.

“The agreement does give me everything I am asking for,” Connolly reiterated his earlier statement, so he recommended the city board approve it.

“I think we need to go forward with this because it resolves an important issue,” Commissioner Susan Chapman said. “It lets the county save some face.”

Because county attorneys originally argued that the assessments were valid, Connolly told the commissioners, “they have to have something to explain why they changed their position.”

“I understand what settlements are about,” Freeland Eddie replied. (She is an attorney.)

Fournier then suggested that the board approve the agreement and direct staff to start on a list as a show of “good faith compliance.”

Chapman made his recommendation a motion, and Commissioner Suzanne Atwell seconded it.

About 30 minutes after the discussion began, the commissioners voted 4-1 in favor of the agreement.