The Lake County Board of County Commissioners met in special session on Monday, July 31, 1989, at 1O:OO a.m., in the Board of County Commissioner's Meeting Room, Lake County Courthouse, Tavares, Florida. Commissioners present at the meeting were: C. W. "Chick" Gregg, Chairman; Thomas J. Windram; Richard Swartz; Michael J. Bakich; and Don Bailey. Others present were: James C. Watkins, Clerk; Christopher C. Ford, County Attorney; Ava Kronz, Assistant to the County Manager; Robert K. McKee, Chief Deputy Clerk; and Sandra Carter, Deputy Clerk.
Mr. James C. Watkins, Clerk and Acting County Manager, gave the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance was led by Commr. Bakich.
ACCOUNTS ALLOWED/FIRE PROTECTION/ORDINANCES/MUNICIPALITIES
Commr. Gregg gave opening remarks as to the purpose of this special meeting being called, and what format the Board would follow concerning it.
The County Attorney, Chris Ford, explained research his office had done, regarding the issue, at which time he distributed a memo indicating said research. He stated that Florida Statute 197.3632 provides the procedure and process for the County to impose non-ad valorem assessments or to increase said assessments. He stated that no vote of the electorate is required to amend the Fire Tax Ordinance, only the action of the Board. The Board can increase the fee from $35.00 up to $50.00, however, no more than $50.00. If the Board chooses to leave the fee at $35.00, no action will be necessary at this time.
Mr. Lonnie Strickland, Director of Health and General Services, appeared before the Board and explained the need for an increase in the fire assessment and answered questions presented to him by the Board.
Discussion occurred regarding vacant land and fires associated with this type land, versus fires associated with land having structures, at which time Mr. Chuck Sowers, Fire Coordinator, stated that 75% of a fire department's time is taken up with putting out brush and timber type fires, on vacant land, rather than with structural type fires (of which most involve mobile homes). It was noted that the County receives 10 cents per acre tax for agricultural
land, however, receives nothing for vacant land.
Commr. Gregg stated that the County might want to start charging a service charge for putting out fires on vacant land, and questioned Mr. Sowers as to what revenue would be generated, based on the calls which were made in prior years, if the County did so, to which Mr. Sowers stated that his department has not assessed what revenue would be generated by doing so, as yet, therefore, does not have a figure at this time.
Commr. Gregg then questioned how much trouble it would be to keep track of the records and handle the billing, if the County were to adopt a service charge for putting out fires on vacant land, as alluded to earlier.
Mr. Watkins, Clerk and Acting County Manager, stated that the bookkeeping aspect should probably be done through the Finance Department.
Discussion occurred regarding a Capital Improvement Program, to replace some of the obsolete fire equipment which some of the districts are having to use, at which time Mr. Strickland stated that some of the revenue generated by the fire structure tax would go into a Capital Improvement Program for doing just that.
Commr. Gregg questioned the County Attorney, Chris Ford, as to whether funds could be transferred from the General Fund, to subsidize some of the fire districts, or whether funds could be transferred from one district to another, or collected from all districts and disbursed from one fund, to which Mr. Ford replied that, by law, they could not.
Discussion occurred regarding agricultural land and how it is taxed, at which time Commr. Swartz suggested possibly working with the Property Appraiser's Office in determining how agricultural land should be taxed, for fire protection, due to the fact that there is a lot of land in the County that is zoned agricultural that is not actually used as agricultural.
Discussion continued regarding this issue.
At this time, the Chairman, Commr. Gregg, turned the floor over to those present in the audienceto make comments regarding the increase in the fire assessment tax.
The County Attorney stated that the Board could make this distinction as another subcategory in the ordinance, however, suggested speaking with the Property Appraiser before doing so.
Mr. Carl Waller, Altoona, appeared before the Board stating that in 1984 he set up a volunteer fire department in Altoona and worked deligently for it, until he had a number of heart attacks. He stated that he was in favor of, and worked hard for, the fire tax, which was voted on in 1984. He stated that vacant lots was never incorporated into it, nor was the miscellaneous category. He stated that it was the understanding of the citizens that fire districts were going to be disbanded, at that time, with all monies going into one pot, thereby, helping out the individual fire departments, however, this was never done. He stated that, if what the County Attorney is saying is true, in that the vote taken i n 1984 does not mean a thing, then wonders why the public even takes the time to vote.
Commr. Gregg commented on Mr. Waller's statements, stating that staff checked on the problem with vacant lots and why they were not being assessed, and found that the problem lies with the Property Appraiser's Office, in that, the software and data base that he has does not have the individual parcels listed, therefore, his office cannot assess them. This is the reason they have not been charged, to date. He also stated that the County Attorney is not saying that what the public voted on in 1984 does not mean anything, but, rather that, at that time, the Board could have set the rate without the referendum - that the referendum was done voluntarily, and, according to State law, the Board does not have to go back to a referendum to adjust said tax.
Ms. Rosemary Bennett, representing the Lake County Board of Realtors, and also noting that she is Chairman of the Issues Mobilization Committee, appeared before the Board stating that they would like to be a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem, and also wishing to have action rather than reaction. She stated that the Board of Directors of the Lake County Board of Realtors addressed a letter (which was submitted to the Board prior to this meeting) to the Board of County Commissioners requesting that the fire tax assessment remain at the present level, with no increase in fire tax assessment, at this time, and that fire districts remain as presently defined, for response only. She stated that they also recommended that the Board administratively distribute existing and future fire tax funds from the General Account to the individual existing districts, as needed, to maintain each district's level of service. She stated that they figured what the new raise in the fire assessment would amount to, and came up with a figure of over one million dollars, over what the existing income presently is, and felt that, at this point in time, considering the fact that the County is going into the Comprehensive Plan, and that within the Comprehensive Plan certain levels of service have to be established, that this would not be the time to put an additional tax on the property owners.
Mr. Tom LaMotte, Sorrento, appeared before the Board stating that he lives on Swan Road, which is not a county maintained road, and, at times, is in deplorable shape, therefore, fire equipment may not go down said road, should there be a fire. He stated that he would like to see some of the tax monies going toward improving Swan Road. He stated that the twenty-eight families that live on Swan Road have paid in approximately $4-5,OOO.OO of fire tax each year, based on assessments, and, as yet, have not had a fire since the referendum was incorporated, therefore, feels that said monies have gone somewhere. He stated that he agrees that those who use the service should pay for the service and believes that it is the County's responsibility to administer to the referendum, however difficult it may be. He stated that he will vote for reasonable fire rates, however, does not feel that going back to the same pot is the right way to go.
Mr. Murphy Cameron, Lake Jem Area, appeared before the Board stating that he does not feel one should have to pay for someone else's carelessness. He stated that since the special assessment, fire protection in his area has worsened, not improved. He feels that Lake County should innovate, rather than stagnate, and become a leader, instead of a blind cloud following. In his opinion, every permit for new construction should include a fire protection fee or an impact fee large enough to bring that project up to par with those that have already been paying the special assessment, and feels there should not be any exceptions. Every call for fire and/or emergency services should be billed as a potential lien to the property owner, at actual and complete cost, thereby, paying one's way. Every fire policy written in Lake County should be made to include this payment of actual cost for fire protection, so that a person's premium would eventually reflect his or her dues for County emergency services. He stated, in reference to the age of some of the fire equipment, that new does not necessarily mean better, and suggested that some of the old equipment be refurbished (fire protection wise), rather than purchase new equipment at a high cost. He stated that those who have been elected to see that the public is well served had better soon take notice that the public is tired of being thrown curve balls. He stated that the Board needs to find a better way - now.
Mr. Walt Zier, Mt. Dora, appeared before the Board stating that, up to one year ago, he had been a fire chief in Lake County for 15 years - first with the Pasco Volunteer Fire Department and then with the Pasco Fire District. He stated that his biggest contention, at present, is that when the County took over their district's equipment, the volunteers turned over the equipment, buildings, trucks, etc. to the County free and clear. At that time, the County guaranteed that they would receive maintenance on said equipment, however, he has not seen any maintenance done. He informed the Board of the condition that their equipment is presently in, and warned the Board of future problems that might occur, due to the lack of proper maintenance, where one or more individuals might be killed.
Mr. Rick Groves, Shockley Hills area, appeared before the Board stating that, in his subdivision, which contains approximately 502 lots, only 50% of the lots have dwellings on them - the other 50% is vacant lots with heavy growth, which have no restrictions stating that they must be kept maintained, therefore, feels that they are a fire hazard. He stated that the owners of the vacant lots pay no fire tax, due to an agricultural zoning. He suggested that the County do away with the agricultural zoning and rezone it residential, then assess the owners for fire protection, at $5.00 per lot, and also make them maintain them, thereby, ridding the neighborhood of a potential fire hazard and, at the same time, bring in a considerable amount of revenue.
Mr. Ronnie Bridges, a local resident, appeared before the Board and discussed the fact that the County's fire equipment is not being properly maintained, stating that, if the equipment was mainta ined as it should be, the fire districts would get a long and useful life out of it.
Mr. John Gammon, Fruitland Park, appeared before the Board stating that, in listening to what was discussed this date, came to the conclusion that this was a very ill-conceived program and feels that the Board was, in his opinion, just trying to grab easy money and stick it to the taxpayers.
Commr. Gregg then informed those present that all the members of the Board are also property owners and will have to pay the increase in fees, if it is approved. He stated that there is no easy money to be had in Lake County, or in any other county, for that matter. He stated that Lake County has a problem and the Board is looking for a solution to that problem. The easy way to solve the problem would be to ignore it, which has been done for far too long. He stated that the Board agrees that vacant parcels should be taxed, however, the Property Appraiser says that this cannot be done. One solution would be to solve the problem regarding the Property Appraiser's Office, and another solution would be to charge Ear service calls. He also stated that none of the Board members came to the meeting this date with their minds made up that the fire tax needed to go from $35.00 to $50.00, however, there is such a demand for services in Lake County and such a shortfall of funds, that the Board is looking for a fair solution. He stated that the Board does not want to see this issue get out of hand, and that they understand the problems faced by those individuals on a fixed income. He stated that the County is presently looking at an impact fee, for public safety, to address problems which growth creates, however, this cannot be instituted overnight. He also stated that the Board appreciates the public's comments, however, would request that they be constructive comments.
Mrs. Katherine O'Calvey, Groveland, appeared before the Board stating that she owns property that is zoned agricultural and, if this increase is approved, her fire taxes will increase from $37.00 to $151.50, due to the fact that she has three (3) structures on her property and will be charged $50.00 per structure. She stated that her husband has been a volunteer fireman for several years, and she was one until approximately one year ago. She stated that residents in her area are being charged for fire protection that they cannot receive, due to the condition of their roads, and feels that the increase in fire assessments is wrong.
Mr. Strickland informed her that, if the increase in fire assessments is approved, she would only pay $52.00 - not $150.00, as she stated, due to the fact that structures that are not being used for commercial uses, on agricultural property, are exempt.
Mr. Herman Walters, a local resident living in the Green Swamp area, appeared before the Board stating that he was in the process of building a home, when it caught on fire and did $35,000.00 worth of damage, before being put out. He stated that he was charged $75.00 for the fire department to put out the fire, which he did not mind, as he was grateful, however, did not understand why one would have to pay $75.00 for the fire department to put out a fire, when one had to pay so much to obtain septic tank, driveway, and building permits, as well as pay impact fees, when building a home. He questioned where the money for said permits goes, to which Commr. Gregg explained.
Mr. James Branch, Leesburg, appeared before the Board questioning how the fire assessment tax would affect Green Swamp land. He stated that he presently pays very little tax, as his property is zoned agricultural.
Commr. Gregg stated that land presently zoned agricultural would go up from ten cents per acre to fifteen cents per acre, if the increase is approved.
Mr. Louis Graves, Leesburg, appeared before the Board stating that he lives outside the City of Leesburg, however, receives no fire protection from the City. He stated that there is a volunteer fire department several miles away from his home, however, by the time they respond it would be too late, therefore, does not feel that he should have to pay for the increase in the fire assessment.
Mr. Jeff Ryals, a local resident, appeared before the Board stating that he owns several warehouses and, if the increase in the fire assessment tax for warehouses, of ten cents per square foot, is approved, this will amount to several thousand dollars. He stated that the insurance for the whole complex is presently less than $1,200.00, and between the cost of the insurance and what he is already paying for the fire tax, does not feel it is a fair assessment. He stated that ten cents per square foot on a 10 x 20 warehouse amounts to $20.00, however, the replacement cost of the warehouse might be approximately $30,000.00, therefore, he would be paying over half of what a residential owner would be paying - as a residential structure's replacement cost might be $80,000.00, with the owner only paying $50.00 in fire tax. Be does not feel this is fair, nor does he feel that property owners can stand another increase.
Mr. John LaMonte, Eustis, appeared before the Board stating that he was not complaining, and informed the Board that he felt the Commissioners were doing the best they could, with the shortfall in taxes, however, wanted the Board to know that the letter he received regarding the increase in the fire assessment was worded in such a way that it sounded like a threat to the property owners. He stated that he thought government was for the will of the people, not to force its will on the people.
Commr. Gregg stated that he, as well as the rest of the Board, agreed with Mr. LaMonte in that the letter did sound like a threat, due to certain requirements, by law, concerning the wording of the letter, however, it was worded the best way possible to get the point across, and apologized for having to word it the way it was worded.
Mr. Douglas Harrison, District Chief at the Astatula Fire Station, appeared before the Board informing those present that there are approximately 350-400 dedicated volunteer firemen in Lake County, working with equipment that is outdated and, in some cases, in poor condition, for the benefit of the residents of Lake County. He requested that these volunteer firemen be remembered, and appreciated for how hard they work for the residents of Lake County.
At this time, the Chairman, Commr. Gregg, stated that he would like to take a vote on the request for an increase in special assessments, for fire protection.
Commr. Bailey stated that, until the Board looks at consolidating the fire districts, and addressing the vacant lot issue, he cannot support an increase at this time.
Commr. Swartz stated that he agrees, somewhat, with Commr. Bailey, however, feels this is an opportunity to try and address some of the areas that the Board has some consensus on, with regard to some of the vacant land which is presently not being assessed. He stated that he would like to have the Board do away with Item (c), in the ordinance (where it states that a ten cent fee will be charged, per acre, for all agricultural, timber, grazing lands and other agricultural type land and acreage), and put it under the $75.00 per fire fighting unit service charge, or, at the very minimum, go back and address that issue in some fashion, so that only lands that are in bona fide agricultural use (maybe through the exemption), be included in that, as well as all other vacant lands that are not a bona fide agricultural use.
Commr. Gregg injected that the County is presently collecting enough revenue from residential, commercial, and industrial properties - that the problem lies in other type lands, and feels that through a service fee, the problem might be compensated. He stated that he is not sure whether the County ought to do away with the agricultural coverage and just institute the fee, or whether the fee ought to be instituted, as well as the agricultural coverage. He touched on the issue of consolidating the fire districts, stating that he felt it was an issue that needed to be addressed, however, felt that, before it is addressed, the problem of funding needed to be addressed. He stated that the situation of funding is not just to take money from the wealthier districts and put it in districts that are not so wealthy, but more to address why the not so wealthy districts are not properly funded - why the source of revenue is not there. The second step of the problem would be to consolidate.
Discussion occurred regarding Item (f), in the ordinance, concerning vacant land and how the fee would be assessed, at which time Ms. Kathy McDonald, Special Projects Coordinator, stated that she had spoken with the Property Appraiser's Office and clarified how agricultural land is assessed. She stated she was informed that agricultural land is not judged by zoning, but rather by the use of the land - if said land is in an agricultural use and is more than one (1) acre, then it is assessed at ten cents per acre.
Discussion occurred regarding interlocal agreements which the County has with other counties, concerning fire protection, where very little revenue is generated, at which time Commr. Gregg suggested that Mr. Strickland, as well as Mr. Sowers, review said agreements before bringing them back before the Board, as, in his opinion, the fee is too low.
Discussion occurred regarding several aspects of the ordinance, and the fact that being there are seven (71 districts that are involved, having to amend the ordinance for each district, by adding Item (f), under Section 6., however, leaving Items (a) through (e) as they were originally worded.
Commr. Bailey clarified that the Board agreed to leave all fees as they were, except the user fee on vacant land, which will be $75.00.
On a motion by Commr. Swartz, seconded by Commr. Bakich and carried unanimously, the Board approved 'to strike' (in' the title 'of the ordinance 'before them this date o n lines 3, 4 and 5) "NOT PRESENTLY ASSESSED" and,
FOR AN INCREASE IN SPECIAL ASSESSMENTS", as well as to strike (in the body of the ordinance under Item (f), lines 3 and 4) "which is 'not otherwise assessed", thereby, approving and adopting Ordinance No. 1989-9 (A-G), as follows, as read by title only:
AN ORDINANCE AMENDING ORDINANCES 1985-7 BASSVILLE FIRE DISTRICT; 1985-8 NORTHWEST FIRE DISTRICT: 1985-9 PAISLEY FIRE DISTRICT; 1985-10 MT. PLYMOUTH FIRE DISTRICT; 1985-11 PASCO FIRE DISTRICT; 1985-12 SOUTH LAKE FIRE DISTRICT; 1985-13 MSTU UNINCORPORATED COUNTYWIDE; PROVIDING FOR FIRE PROTECTION; PROVIDING FOR A SERVICE CHARGE ON VACANT LANDS; PROVIDING A SEVERANCE CLAUSE: PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE DATE.
There being no further business to be brought to the attention of the Board, the meeting adjourned at 12:OO noon, on a motion by Commr. Bailey, seconded by Commr. Bakich and carried unanimously.
C.W. "CHICK" GREGG, CHAIRMAN
JAMES C. WATKINS, CLERK