Friday, July 8, 2011

Cooper City sued over fire fee

Cooper City sued over fire fee

Lawsuit claims city erred in using money to pay for rescue service

By Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel
4:19 PM EDT, July 8, 2011

COOPER CIT -- A lawsuit filed last week contends city officials broke state law by collecting a fire fee from property owners and using it to pay for emergency medical services from 2006 through 2010.

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status, says homeowners and business owners who paid the fire fee during those years deserve a refund.

City Attorney David Wolpin referred to the lawsuit as frivolous and unfounded.

As originally written, the city code said the "fire-rescue assessment" would help cover the cost of emergency medical services. Despite the wording, Wolpin said, the city used the fire fee to pay for the cost of fire protection only.

Cooper City will likely seek to have the case dismissed, Wolpin said.
Still, Commissioner John Sims said he was not surprised by the lawsuit.

"The city screwed up," said Sims, who has publicly objected to the way the fire fee was calculated. "They're taxing people illegally."

The three plaintiffs — residents Walter and Barbara Jolliff and Brenda Kezar — are demanding a jury trial. They claim more than $15,000 in damages and are seeking to recover attorneys fees and costs.

Walter Jolliff said he was not sure how much the refund might be. "It's not chump change, I can tell you that," he said.

Residents currently pay a fire fee of $122.50. Business owners pay a higher fee based on square footage.

David Frankel, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said he needs more information from the city to calculate what the refund might be.

In 2002, the Florida Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional for local governments to charge property owners a fire fee for emergency medical services.

Cooper City also failed to perform a study required to properly calculate the appropriate fire fee rate, the lawsuit says.

City Manager Bruce Loucks declined to say whether the city ever conducted such a study. "I can't talk about that because of the lawsuit," he said.

In July 2010, commissioners amended the code and deleted all references to the fire fee paying for rescue service.

Wolpin described the change as a "cleanup" amendment.

"What matters is not what you say but what you do," he said. "The wording ... does not really matter, because the money was only collected and spent on fire protection." or 954-356-4554

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