City adopts proposed $9.2 million fire assessment plan

Turner Dowling, an Ocala Fire Rescue firefighter/EMT pulls firehose from an engine as Chris Reynolds, a fire equipment operator, left, checks to make sure it doesn’t get caught up as they arrive at a simulated burning house in this March file photo. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
The Ocala City Council approved a plan to raise $9.2 million to help pay for fire services using a tiered assessment charged to property owners, including those of vacant land.

The council voted 4-1 to approve the resolution. Council President Justin Grabelle voted against the plan. The council did not discuss the plan. There was no public comment either.

The move comes after the city’s previous method of collecting fire fees was deemed unconstitutional last year.

The proposed plan, which must be finalized after a September public hearing, means homeowners would pay between $152.47 and $255.48, depending on the square footage of the home.

In January, the city passed a separate onetime assessment that only considered if the property was residential or non-residential. Residential properties were assessed $190.77 regardless of size or type.

In that assessment, the city did not include vacant property. This time, each vacant parcel will be assessed $23.35.

Also, in contrast to the January assessment, multifamily property owners would have to pay $137.08 for each unit 1,000 square feet or smaller. Units larger than 1,200 square feet would be assessed $153.37 each.

Non-residential property is broken down into commercial, industrial warehouse and institutional categories. As an example, the lowest assessment for commercial property would be $145 for a property smaller than 2,000 square feet. For properties larger than 300,000 square feet, the assessment tops out at $43,500.

The proposed rates were established after a study conducted by Tindale Oliver. The resolution establishes the proposed rates, directs the preparation of the fire assessment roll, sets a date for a public hearing and directs the publishing and mailing of notices to property owners notifying them of the proposed assessment.

The Ocala Fire Rescue assessable budget is $16.2 million of which the assessment will pay for $9.2 million, according to the study. The city will pay for the rest of the budget through other sources.

The amount is comparable to what was collected using the previous fee strategy.

In 2006, the city began charging a monthly fee to every city resident’s Ocala Electric Utility bill. Every city resident who had electric service paid approximately $15 per month to help pay for fire service. The intent was to have residents help pay for fire services instead of placing the burden only onto property owners.

A lawsuit filed in 2014, argued that the fee was an illegal tax. The court eventually agreed and ordered the city to refund upwards of $81 million to those who paid the fee. The city is challenging the amount due in refunds.

When the bill does come, the city plans to use reserves combined with a loan to pay the expected multi-million-dollar refund.

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