Sunday, August 19, 2018
Public safety

Future in limbo for Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue after judge throws out referendum

INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — A judge has thrown out a referendum that allowed the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District to start collecting a property tax, leaving the future of the fire district in limbo.

In a ruling this month, Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold sided with Edward Hoofnagle, a district resident and an Indian Rocks Beach commissioner, that the referendum was misleading to voters and "is of no legal effect." Voters in the district — which covers Indian Rocks Beach, Indian Shores, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore and the unincorporated Oakhurst area — approved the referendum last November.

"This court concludes that defendant has engaged in the type of 'advantageous but misleading wordsmithing' that has been condemned and rejected by the Florida Supreme Court," the ruling says. "Deception of the voting public is intolerable and should not be countenanced."

The ruling comes at the tail end of budget season, during which government officials plan their finances for the next fiscal year, which starts Sunday. Not only is about $1.5 million of projected revenue now in question, but the district has spent about $253,000 toward creating, then defending, the referendum. About $116,000, was racked up during the lawsuit, according to district financial documents.

Scott McLaren, an attorney from Tampa-based Hill Ward Henderson representing the district, on Tuesday filed a notice of appeal. District commission Chairman Joe Bruni said commissioners will decide at their October meeting whether to continue with the appeal.

In the meantime, Bruni said commissioners are moving forward with levying a tax rate of 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value on district residents and a budget that accounts for the revenue. But the district will spend frugally, finance director Dave Martin said. Raises for employees, proposed for 3 percent across the board, will be put on hold.

"Until we know exactly what we're doing, we're not going to be spending to the budget that is presented," Martin said. "We're going to be very cautious."

The order doesn't provide direction to the Pinellas County property appraiser or tax collector on how to handle the tax. Joseph Kenny, an attorney representing Hoofnagle, said he has reached out to both offices to alert them of the decision.

"From our interpretation . . . the fire district no longer has the authority to levy the tax," he said.

But Amanda Coffey, a managing assistant county attorney who represents the property appraiser, said it's the office's "ministerial role" to put the tax on the tax rolls if that's what the district directs it to do. Should the circuit judge's decision stand, the Tax Collector's office would send revised tax bills and issue refunds to residents, said Andrea DiFonte, spokeswoman for the tax collector.

St. Arnold pointed to two reasons why the referendum was misleading. One was that the title didn't include the word tax. The other took issue with a section that says the district would reduce the rate cap from $3, as allowed by the district charter, to $2. District officials said the move was to protect voters from commissioners levying higher taxes down the line. But St. Arnold wrote that use of words "reduce" and "reduced" was misleading to voters because the referendum wasn't a tax reduction.

Since the district's inception in the 1950s, it has collected a flat fee as its primary source of income. Former Chief Salvatore D'Angelo drove the effort to add a property tax, saying it was more equitable to homeowners and would allow the commission to adjust the rate based on the district's needs rather than having to go before voters to increase the fee. D'Angelo resigned last month to take another job.

Literature distributed to residents during the referendum campaign illustrated a bleak future for the district should the tax not work out: "At least one station will close. Personnel will be cut. Equipment would get older." Bruni said that is absolutely still the case.

"We have some tough decisions to make," he said, "because we may not have enough money to sustain the fire district."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn.

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