Martin County fire assessment fee abandoned

(L) District 5 Commissioner Ed Ciampi, District 3 Commissioner Harold Jenkins, District 4 Commissioner Sarah Heard, District 2 Commissioner Ed Fielding, District 1 Commissioner Doug Smith. (Source: www.martin.fl.us)

From Ginny Sherlock, renowned local attorney, civic activist, and former Associated Press editor: Martin County Commissioners voted unanimously today to abandon a proposed fire services assessment fee after dozens of citizens spoke out in opposition to the proposal.

The fee, which would have been added to annual property tax bills, would have increased tax bills by 50% to 80% or more for many property owners.  A number of business owners objected to the proposal, including the owner of the Seminole Inn in Indiantown, who said that if the fee were implemented, it would be the end of the historic Seminole Inn, which doesn’t earn enough revenue to pay a tax bill that increased from just over $7,000 in 2016 to more than $16,000 with the proposed fire assessment for 2018.

Other business owners, including landlords and mobile home parks, objected to the lack of fairness in assessing small, low-cost housing units the same amount — or more —  than huge waterfront mansions.  A recurring theme was the lack of transparency and lack of public outreach by staff in moving the proposal forward.  Many residents had no idea the fire assessment fee was even under consideration until they received notices that were sent out on August 21 advising them of the extra costs to be added to their tax bills.  Several speakers referred to the lack of trust in local government that makes residents reluctant to support fees or taxes that will be used for unspecified purposes.  Everyone supports a well-equipped and well-staffed Fire Department, but there were many unanswered questions about exactly where the $13 million raised annually by the proposed fire assessment fee would be spent.

In a terrific display of public participation, speakers stepped up to the podium from all parts of the County.  They represented all age groups, workers and retirees, permanent residents and snowbirds.  They were business owners and homeowners, lawyers and doctors and veterinarians and property managers.  All were articulate, passionate, and candid.

Although staff initially recommended approving the fire services assessment, at the beginning of this morning’s hearing, the recommendation was changed and staff asked the Commission to postpone a vote to provide time to further review the proposal and engage in additional public education.

At the conclusion of more than two hours of public comment, Commissioner Sarah Heard made a motion, seconded by Commissioner Ed Fielding, to abandon the fire assessment fee.

Commissioners Harold Jenkins and Doug Smith attempted to keep the fee alive by suggesting a delay in voting on it until after the first of the year.  That effort failed, however, when Commissioner Ed Ciampi joined Commissioners Heard and Fielding in voting against a substitute motion made by Jenkins and seconded by Smith.

That brought Commissioner Heard’s motion forward to a unanimous vote of approval.

The fire protection assessment fee will not be imposed and will not be reviewed or reconsidered unless there is an entirely separate move to revive it.  This seems highly unlikely given the massive public opposition to the proposal and the decisive vote today to kill the fee.

Today’s attendance and engagement by the public was reminiscent of the small wetlands battle.

Citizens can and do make a difference in Martin County.

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