September 28, 2012 10:50 pm
Lake property owners recently received notice about a class-action lawsuit that aims to recoup fire-assessment fees paid from 2005 to 2008.
The lawsuit was filed in 2009 by several property owners who maintain the county improperly spent money from the annual fire special assessment fee toward paramedic-level medical services at fire stations.
More than 60,000 property owners may be affected by the lawsuit, and if the plaintiffs prevails, they could stand to reclaim part of that fee, if the plaintiffs prevail.
Mediation talks between the plaintiffs and county officials have not resolved the lawsuit. County Attorney Sandy Minkoff said the county is contesting the claims. The lawsuit is pending before Senior Judge Victor Musleh, a retired chief circuit judge who has been assigned the case.
Since 1998, Lake property owners have been paying an annual special assessment for fire-rescue services, which is separate from the property-tax rate. Funds are used for fire stations, equipment, training and salaries of fire-department personnel.
However, the suit focuses on the fees paid from 2005 to ’08. The plaintiffs claim that during that period the county wrongly used funds to pay for medical services that require advanced-life support, or paramedic-level, response. The cost for the advanced-life-support medical services go beyond the basic first-responder first-aid care firefighters had already provided, according to court records.
Homeowners paid a fee of $137 per dwelling during fiscal year 2005-06, records show. The fee increased to $171 in 2006-07 and to $197 during 2007-08. The fee varied for other property owners. For example, for fiscal year 2005-06, $33 was assessed for every space at an RV park and every hotel or motel room, while commercial properties paid $358 to $17,893, depending on square footage.
In 2009, four property owners filed suit, seeking a refund of those fees.The plaintiffs say the county should have separated advanced-life-support services costs but included it in the fee. During the period, Lake fire stations added more paramedics and upgraded equipment. The suit cites a 2002 Florida Supreme Court ruling that found that cities and counties can’t use special assessments to pay for emergency medical services. Because they benefit people and not properties, such services should be paid through property taxes.
In December, Musleh ruled that the suit merits “class-action” status in that the rulings could affect any of the more than 60,000 property owners who paid the fee. To notify people that they could have a claim, a notice was sent to those who owned property and paid the special assessment from 2005 to ’08. Anyone who wishes to be excluded from the suit must notify plaintiff attorneys McLin Burnsed of Leesburg by Oct. 31. Those who wish to remain involved will continue to receive notices.•••
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