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Guest opinion: Tearing down a wall of misinformation with facts

April 3, 2014
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

On March 20, a resident wrote a letter to the editor referencing the informational letter I included with the fire service assessment bill mailed to all Cape Coral property owners. Please know he is misinforming the readers.

He refers to the legal process used by the City - a bond validation - as the City suing its property owners. He fails to explain that a bond validation process asks the circuit court to validate the City's authority to incur bonded debt and determine the legality of the taxes or revenues pledged as security for the bond. A bond validation requires the City to serve as the "plaintiff" and all property owners in the state of Florida (not just Cape Coral) to serve as the "defendants." The City voluntarily initiated this process for one reason - to protect Cape Coral citizens from future legal claims.

This legal process is very distinct and does not seek some sort of settlement from property owners in the state of Florida as the writer leads the reader to assume. Our fire service assessment methodology is a newer methodology, and it was important to ensure this methodology met legal muster. The City was successful, and our two-tiered "ready to serve" approach to assessing the costs for fire services was validated by the circuit court.

The letter writer then expresses tepid support for a "ready to serve" methodology, which is surprising since he and others are attempting to have it invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court. His exception to the methodology is with the Tier 1 portion of the assessment, which is a flat fee of $62.02 for all properties in Cape Coral regardless of size. He says Tier 1 forces homeowners to subsidize owners of large, vacant parcels, and he uses an example of a 200-acre parcel. Unfortunately, his assertion overlooks factual realities.

The Tier 1 portion relates to "response readiness," which means the Fire Department stands ready to respond whenever called. "Response readiness" applies to every property in the city regardless of the size, value or status of the property, which is why the City chose to make Tier 1 a single, flat fee for all parcels.

His 200-acre parcel example is misleading because out of the 58,000 vacant parcels subject to the fire service assessment, 93 percent are residential properties. Only about 6 percent are commercial and only 0.1 percent are vacant, industrial properties. Amongst all of these vacant properties, one would be hard-pressed to find many 200-acre parcels since large parcels of this size are rare in Cape Coral. The writer uses this exaggerated example in an attempt to instigate resentment against the City's approach to Tier 1. In actuality, our approach ensures all vacant parcels are included and will contribute to the fire assessment. His example implies there could be significant savings for homeowners if Tier 1 were apportioned based on the size of the parcel. His implication is wrong.

The total annual fire assessment for the average homeowner is $108.88 (Tier 1 + Tier 2). According to our rate consultant, if Tier 1 was calculated for vacant parcels based on the number of 3-acre equivalents, the average homeowner would see a $0.83 reduction in their total fire assessment. Even if Tier 1 was calculated for vacant parcels using a more conservative 1-acre equivalent, the new calculation would save homeowners only $2.80 on their total fire assessment. As you can see, the savings is minimal because we do not have many large, vacant parcels.

Informing our homeowners about the increased cost to them if the City is forced to a "calls for service" methodology has nothing to do with making a "threat" or "not getting my way." The "calls for service" would shift most of the cost we currently allocate to vacant properties back to our homeowners. We do not think that is fair, and our homeowners need to know why. If we have to use "calls for service," the costs for fire services would have to be reallocated using a different calculation. Owners of vacant parcels would see their total fire assessment drop from $62 to only $5, while the average homeowner would see their fire assessment increase by at least $42.

The writer intimates we are trying to conceal the fact that the fire service assessment is going to generate additional revenue to the City. This is untrue since we have said publicly on many occasions, as well as in the letter to which he refers, that the additional cost to the average homeowner for economic sustainability would be about $150 per year. We have been forthcoming about our need for additional revenue to make our city sustainable. We have talked about the partnership with the community, which involves additional revenue, property tax reduction and pension reform. Everyone participates - homeowners, vacant property owners and City employees. Even with the additional $150 per year, Cape Coral's costs for services remain one of the most affordable in comparison to other Florida cities.

The challenge was to "tear down this wall of misinformation." The wall of misinformation, however, is coming from the writer himself.

Thank you for your time.

- John Szerlag is the city manager for the city of Cape Coral.



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