Ocala makes the second set of fire fee refunds
More than 250 concerned citizens fill the courtroom during the $80 million City of Ocala Fire Fee lawsuit hearing at the Marion County Judicial Center in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, May 10, 2022. More than 250 concerned citizens packed courtroom 1 for the final hearing of the lawsuit at the courthouse. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
The city of Ocala has mailed out a second batch of refund checks to Ocala Electric Utility customers who paid a fire fee from 2010 until the beginning of 2021 when the city stopped charging it and who have already cashed their first refund check.
The amounts of the first and second refund checks should equal 100% fire fees paid on each account.
The refund checks are pursuant to a May 16, 2022 court order by Marion County Circuit Judge Robert W. Hodges in a case that has dragged on for 10 years, including at least four appeals.
The case stems from a long-running class-action suit filed in 2014 over fees that more than 89,000 Ocala residents and businesses paid for fire services as an add-on to their utility bills. The city’s attorney claimed the Ocala City Council implemented the fee in 2006 to spread the cost of fire services across a broader group of citizens, including those who did not pay for fire services because they didn’t own real estate or were tax-exempt.
An appellate court found the fees constituted an illegal tax. Last October, Hodges ordered the city to establish a common fund to refund the fees. The city took out a $60 million dollar loan from Truist to pay the court’s judgment.
In the May 16 order, which can be read in its entirety here, Hodges determined all utility customers due a refund should receive up to 91% of the money they paid. The refund would come within 60 days by check mailed to the same address they received their notice of final hearing.
For those who received notice of the May 10 final hearing by mail, there were no additional claims processes to navigate.
The city said it has sent refund checks totaling $64,161,127 to 67,439 accounts. Thus far, only 45,956 checks have been cashed, totaling $ 55,687,917.
According to the order, after the one-year claim period has passed, any unclaimed funds would be subject to a “second distribution to those class members who have cashed their refund checks as part of the first distribution.”
The city said 18,326 checks totaling $ 7,250,315 are void since they were not cashed within 180 days. These accounts have forfeited their entire refund.
Those former customers who have moved or relatives of those former customers who are deceased were told to file a claim form during a period that ran from July 1, 2022 through July 1, 2023.
The city hired the Notice Company to navigate that first claim cycle and some of those claims are still being processed.
One private investigator, Rob Weber, saw an opportunity in February as the deadline approached. He said he obtained the list of 22,000 accounts whose owners had not cashed their checks.
“I worked 24/7 for months on that list and sent out 7,000 to 10,000 letters to people I found telling them I could help them obtain city refunds for a fee,” said Weber.
Weber ran into problems convincing people they were entitled to refunds. “No one believes you,” lamented Weber. “So far I’ve only been able to help 600 accounts make claims to the city.”
Derek Schroth, the attorney for the plaintiffs in the suit, seemed to be receiving accounting information about the first and second refunds at the same time the “Gazette” was.
“We are reviewing the information to ensure the city’s compliance with the court-ordered refund,” Schroth said.
Claimants who need help processing their claims should reach out to the city’s customer service department: email@example.com or by phone to: (352) 629-CITY (2489).