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Now it’s up to council

May 8, 2015
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

The city of Cape Coral has prevailed in its defense of a controversial new tax implemented as part of a revenue "diversification" plan.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the fire services assessment the city approved more than two years ago is legal, giving the city the ability to allocate the money it has collected but has not spent.

The Florida Supreme Court validated the city of Cape Coral's annual assessment for fire protection services, saying the municipality did not violate existing law.

The city has the authority to issue special assessments, the court stated in its May 7 ruling, adding the court's scope of review is limited to "1) whether the municipality has the authority to issue the assessment; (2) whether the purpose of the assessment is legal; and (3) whether the assessment complies with the requirements of the law."

"[A] valid special assessment must meet two requirements: (1) the property assessed must derive a special benefit from the service provided; and (2) the assessment must be fairly and reasonably apportioned according to the benefits received," the court stated in its finding, which cites numerous previous case decisions.

The city meets the legal requirements, the court ruled, adding "Even an unpopular decision, when made correctly, must be upheld."

"Unpopular" is an understatement when it comes to defining how some in the Cape reacted to both the tax and the methodology by which the city determined how it would be imposed upon homes, lots, undeveloped parcels and commercial properties.

A small group of residents challenged that assessment methodology shortly after it was approved by city council, saying it was arbritrary and that it violated existing law. The group also maintained that a Lee County court in 2013 ruled improperly for the city and that their "procedural due process rights" were violated, hence the appeal to the state's high court.

City officials are hailing the ruling and will move forward to allocate the money, which, by law, must be used for fire service operations.

On the resident side, reaction remains mixed as the city can now use property tax dollars previously allocated for fire services for other things and/or reduce the millage rate to compensate for the new money.

Let us weigh in here: Unlike fire assessments proposed - and mostly defeated - for area fire districts, the city levy does not have to mean a significant tax increase for those of us paying it.

Nor does it have to be what it easily can be construed as: an end run around the state's millage cap so the city's administration and council can "tax and spend" freely on raises, reclassifications, new positions and capital "wants" instead of needs.

A keen eye on budget requests and a sharp budget knife for extraneous items can deliver to Cape Coral taxpayers what was promised when the city proposed the assessment: revenue diversification that yes, brings in some much-needed money for neglected capital improvements but that also will be offset by a like decrease in the property tax rate over that $20 million capital improvements bump the assessment was intended to partially allow for.

With rising property valuations, that could be a nice decrease in the millage rate- if council does its job.

And that's to be a hard sell if next year's budget proposal bloats.

We urge our elected board to send that message to the administration now.

That would make the court ruling the victory it is being deemed.

- Breeze editorial



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