Fire Service Assessment

Overview

In 2015, the City Commission adopted a tax equity tool – the Fire Service Assessment – to address severe budget and reserve shortfalls. The City Commission obtained a judicial validation concerning the assessment methodology and approach, and use of the proceeds for debt service, before sending its annual Fire Service Assessment bills to property owners.

On August 31, 2017, at 5:00pm, the City Commission will hold a public hearing in the City Commission Chambers at City Hall, 201 N. 2nd St., Palatka, Florida for the purpose of again receiving comments on the proposed Fire Service Assessments for FY 17-18 (our next budget year).  The City Commission has committed earlier this summer not to increase the rates charged for these assessments from those charged last year.

A copy of the proposed amount of the Fire Service Assessment for each property can be found at http://quicksearch.ennead-data.com/palatka.  You can look up all assessed properties by either (1) owner name, (2) property address, or (3) tax parcel identification number.

This annual Fire Service Assessment is expected to pay for about 60% of the annual cost for our fire department capital and service availability.  This is an annual process, whic at its inception went through several public meetings and hearings before our City Commission, a judicial validation, and is now a part of a more equitable annual budgetary process.

When will the Fire Service Assessment payment be due?  Can the initial direct bill be paid in installments?

Because the Fire Service Assessment is collected on the same bill as property taxes, the Fire Service Assessment must be paid in the same manner and is not severable.  If a property owner desires to pay both property taxes and all assessments quarterly pursuant to section 197.222, Florida Statutes, please contact the Putnam County Tax Collector's office.

What happens in the case of a hardship circumstance; is there a deferral opportunity?

In some circumstances, less-fortunate property owners may qualify to defer payment based upon hardship circumstances.  Upon application by a property owner to the fire Assessment Coordinator or City Manager, the City may administratively grant a hardship deferment, in which case the tax parcel assessment will be deferred.  The property owner will have to sign an agreement that the Fire Service Assessment, and any recording costs, plus interest, is to be paid over time or on sale or transfer of the property.

You can review the hardship application and deferral documents here; and, please contact our Finance Director at  MReynolds@Palatka–FL.gov  if you would like to apply or learn more about this alternative in an individual meeting.

Why did the City impose a Fire Service Assessment?

The City Commission’s goal in implementing this assessment is to provide an alternative and supplemental means of handling projected City budget shortfalls through adoption of assessment rates that are limited and flexible, legally sturdy, and that can be changed efficiently over time.

By considering City policies, practices, the annual fire department budget, the City’s overall budget, and other economic conditions, this ‘simplified’ Fire Service Assessment will allow our community to continue making high-quality fire protection services and facilities available while showing responsible financial stewardship.  The provision of the fire services, facilities, and improvements will, in all likelihood, continue in ensuing years to be funded, in part, by special Fire Service Assessments levied on property within the City limits. The remainder of the fire protection budget can be funded with other legally available revenues (most of which are property-tax based) of the City. This is a challenging balancing process that must be addressed annually.

The Fiscal Year 2017-2018 rates, as shown on the Quick Search site http://quicksearch.ennead-data.com/palatka, are the maximum rates the City can impose for the coming year.  The City Commission may decrease, but will not increase the rates for the upcoming year.

The Fire Service Assessments for each and every parcel of property are based on a benefits and burdens analysis that was recommended by an experienced team of professional advisors and was carefully considered by the City Commission, and was approved as lawful by the Circuit Court on September 10, 2015.  The rates are associated with the cost of making continually available fire protection services and facilities every day for all tax parcels within the City.  This general process has also been validated by the Florida Supreme Court.

How is the City’s Fire Service Assessment determined?

Each parcel of property in the City assigned to an identification number by the county property appraiser is considered one (1) tax parcel.  Upon annual approval by the City Commission after the public hearing, the rate of assessment for each tax parcel is not to exceed the sum of (i) (Tier 1 – for variable and fixed costs of making fire protection services and facilities available) a variable rate of $2.46 per $1,000 of the relative value of the improvements associated with the tax parcel (no land value); (ii) (Tier 2 – for more fixed costs of making fire protection services and facilities available) $125 fixed for flat rate for each tax parcel; and (iii) a share of the City’s administration and collection costs and expenses associated with the Fire Service Assessment program, which shall not exceed $5 per tax parcel.  All three amounts together make up what the City will impose to fund only about 60% of our City’s total fire protection budget.

What if the Fire Service Assessment bill is not paid?

Payment for next year’s Fire Service Assessment will be collected on the same bill as taxes to be mailed around November 1, 2017.  General law requires us to always remind you that:  Until paid, the Fire Service Assessment will constitute a lien against assessed property equal in rank and dignity with the liens of all state, county, district, or municipal taxes and other non-ad valorem assessments.  Assessments become delinquent in the same manner as for unpaid taxes, and failure to pay a non-ad valorem assessment will cause a tax certificate to be issued against the property which may result in loss of title. 

By the way, Government property is not subject to the Fire Service Assessment, but governments are asked by the City to contribute as they are big beneficiaries of our Fire Department. Also, the City Commission has previously determined to charge institutional properties (e.g. certain non-profits, including churches) a transition rate of 50%.

The City’s Fire Service Assessment charges will only be used for the purpose of fire protection related expenditures.  However, because the City has entirely funded fire protection services and facilities through its general fund for so long, the assessment really helps to improve the City’s financial health by taking some (not all) pressure off our City’s general fund and helps to better position our City’s finances and budget which would otherwise be vulnerable – particularly in the event of a natural disaster.  Thank you for reviewing this information.

Fire Service Assessments are the Responsibility of the City Commission.

The use of data derived from the County property tax roll (both in form and content), which is a statutorily required and uniformly maintained database of all tax parcels employed by the Property Appraiser and Tax Collector, represents an accurate, fair and efficient data which is standardized and carefully certified to the Florida Department of Revenue each year. This data reflects every parcel of land in our City, and gives each parcel a unique ‘tax parcel’ identification number for each lot, condominium unit, or tract of land in the City and the Property Appraiser determines various required valuation for improvements and land. The City, in turn uses this data in its ‘simplified fire’ approach as a means to allocate or distribute appropriate Fire Department costs associated with standing ready to provide fire protection and associated services and facilities.

Please understand that the Fire Service Assessments are imposed and levied by the Palatka City Commission, not the Property Appraiser or Tax Collector.  Any activity of the Property Appraiser or Tax Collector associated with the Assessment process is solely ministerial.  The patience, work, and responsibilities of these local County officials are greatly appreciated as they carry out their constitutional and general law duties; so please keep in mind that these local County officials have no policy responsibility with regard to the City’s Fire Service Assessments or the method of apportionment, the fire protection budget, the annual rates imposed, or collection and enforcement procedures employed. The City just smartly uses the accurate data our local County officials are constantly producing.

Want to learn even more? Please consider the following as a means to be better informed about Fire Service Assessments, and the concept called ‘Simplified Fire’.

The constant and continued preparedness to provide fire protection services, facilities and programs (1) protects the value of the improvements and structures through the continual availability of fire control and provision of fire protection and associated rescue services; (2) protects the life and safety of intended occupants in the use and enjoyment of real property; (3) serves to lower the cost of casualty or liability insurance by the presence of a fire protection and associated rescue services; (4) provides, in part, a safety net of protection for uninsured or underinsured property and property owners; and (5) serves to limit liability and contain the spread of fire incidents, sometimes occurring on vacant or undeveloped property, with the potential to spread and endanger the structures and occupants of nearby improved property.  

The ‘simplified fire’ approach being embraced by the City acts to remove the underlying land values from consideration and reasonably focuses upon the built environment on the land protected by fire services, facilities and programs (Tier 1).  But we have come to also understand that the mere availability of fire protection services and facilities also benefits each tax parcel of real property in the City in a substantially uniform fashion by relieving the common burden placed upon City services and facilities collectively created by individual tax parcels (Tier 2). Fundamentally, the presence of each tax parcel within the City creates a comparable and similar requirement to stand ready to serve and continually maintain a preparedness to provide fire protection and associated services and facilities for all tax parcels. Both Tiers recognize that costs occur whether a fire event occurs or not. Separately, and together the recognition of these relationships and circumstances present a direct and logically related means to share benefits, burdens and costs of fire protection services, facilities and programs among all property owners in our community.

Instead of recreating the wheel, the City looks to carefully kept and always updated public data derived from the property tax roll prepared by the Property Appraiser which allow for the recognition of the relatively higher benefit accruing to properties which face greater financial loss in the event of fire incident.  This is a durable or ‘evergreen’ approach so that from year to year in accordance with market conditions and other factors such variation will be adjusted automatically in accordance with the updated improvement value determined by the Property Appraiser.  If the improvements on a given tax parcel were to increase or decrease in value with the passage of time relative to the updated improvement value city-wide, that tax parcel’s relative percentage to the total amount assessed for that tax parcel and all tax parcels will also increase or decrease proportionately.

The Fire Service Assessment rates developed in the ‘simplified fire’ approach present a combined approach to achieve equity. They serve to share the constant cost of a community burden where the mere availability of fire protection services and facilities benefits each tax parcel of real property in the City in a substantially uniform fashion by relieving the common burden placed upon City services and facilities collectively created by individual tax parcels  - whether a fire event occurs or not.  Fundamentally, the presence of each tax parcel within the City creates a comparable and similar requirement to stand ready to serve and continually maintain a preparedness to provide fire protection and associated services and facilities for all tax parcels.

So the Fire Service Assessment really is made up of two methods (Tier 1 and Tier 2) each equitable alone, but together creating further equity by diversity of cost sharing methods. 

A detailed description of the assessment program is available in the City’s Ordinance and initial Annual Assessment Resolution, on file with the City Clerk and available for public inspection.  Please note that revenue from the Fire Service Assessment may be used only to fund the Palatka Fire Department, as required by law.

What is ‘Simplified Fire’?

‘Simplified Fire’ is the two-tiered fire assessment methodology described above which was originally developed by an attorney, Mark G. Lawson, Mark G. Lawson, P.A. (“MGLPA”) [click here for curriculum vitae], Camilla Augustine, a data and roll expert, Ennead, LLC [click here for curriculum vitae], and Owen M. Beitsch, PhD, FAICP, CRE, an economist, GAI Consultants, Inc. [click here for curriculum vitae].  It is based on digesting a public sector budget for availability of essential services, like fire protection. Dr. Beitsch is a recognized expert in economic analysis, apportionment and public budgeting and refers to the method as “Simplified Fire.”  The concept is copyrighted and trademarked. Dr. Beitsch and Ennead, in association with MGLPA have produced the concise individualized evidentiary report for the City of Palatka and for several other communities which informs and demonstrates that the ‘Simplified Fire’ method is (1) legally sufficient from a factual standpoint, (2) presents an extraordinarily powerful and low-risk public administration tool to local government managers before implementation, (3) is comprehensive and inexpensive, (4) has already proven durable and evergreen in application for several years; and, (5) if carefully implemented and followed, presents the gold standard for an efficient, transparent two-tiered fire assessment approach responsive to stewardship needs and strictly complies with Florida law. The ‘Simplified Fire’ approach has been judicially validated by Mr. Lawson in Putnam County, Hernando County, Bay County, Pinellas County, and Polk County and was recently further vindicated by the Florida Supreme Court in upholding a deviation that invited challenge.

Although other consultants have been tempted to copy the concept at great expense to communities involved or have sold approaches without fully explaining the true or full cost of implementation or policy failure, ‘simplified fire’ is different in that it presents the entirety of the rates involved to the City Commission and officials in advance of rate setting and a implementation for a fraction of the price of other programs.  It is also the most transparent and accountable means to share the rates and ramifications to affected property owners and the community. The Quick Search site above shows with great specificity the breakdown of every assessment for every tax parcel in the City.

‘Simplified Fire’, unlike ‘demand-based’ or all other programs focuses on specific and certain data that does not need to be developed a second time by consultants (the City is using already standardized data developed and vetted as required by law, which we all already pay for from County officials). As well, simplified fire presents an approach that does not become stale the moment a consulting report is provided, and by its careful logic and legal structure focuses on automatically updated data every year by the efforts of the Property Appraiser.  Other methods and the discussion of fire assessments often and generally tend to drive toward ‘demand-based’ apportionment. Demand-based methods are complex, difficult to understand, hardly transparent, and require considerable recurring costs to retain legal sufficiency. 

Thank you for reading and becoming better informed.

The City Commission and City officials are cognizant that any system, metric or analytical view of appraising benefits or assessing costs will be open to some criticism or suggestion of alternative methods or approaches. The City Commission and City officials and staff have labored to become informed as to the facts, analysis, law and policy latitudes available to our City in determining the proper costs to legally assess to pay for the Fire Department and a fair means to set the rate of the Fire Service Assessment. This is done in the process of dealing with what is always difficult annual budgeting process.  The cost of solid fire protection is 24/7 – it is expensive. The concept of ‘simplified fire’ sifts quickly through the rhetoric, and efficiently provides a tool and means for our City Commission, City officials and staff to: (1) serve and fairly fund  essential public services and capital, in part, from all benefited property owners, (2) lessen burdens on the general fund, and (3) work to be good financial stewards.  The use of a Fire Service Assessment and the ‘simplified fire’ approach presents an efficient and repeatable path for our City and this community to use reliable data every year to legally and fairly share burdens many of us take for granted, and ALL benefit from every day.

If you have questions or comments about the Fire Service Assessment, you may e-mail  MReynolds@Palatka–FL.gov .

 Within reason, the City will endeavor to monitor and respond promptly. 


 

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