Sunday, July 22, 2018
Public safety

One more question surrounding Pinellas Suncoast property tax dispute: Will fire district appeal?

A hectic month of insults, court filings and finger-pointing ended last week with at least one clear outcome: Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District residents won't pay a property tax this year after all.

District commissioners decided during an emergency meeting on Sept. 29 to rescind a property tax they had approved days earlier after a judge ruled the referendum allowing the tax was illegal and instructed the county property appraiser not to reflect it on the tax roll.

But while the reversal quelled immediate concerns over the legality of the tax, the party isn't over yet.

Commissioners will decide Wednesday whether to move forward with an appeal.

Chairman Joe Bruni said he won't be sure whether he'll vote for the appeal until the board discusses options. Commissioner David Gardella, the lone board member to vote against the referendum from the beginning, said he wanted to hear the thoughts of the incoming fire chief, who starts Monday, before giving a definitive answer.

Three other commissioners did not return requests for comment.

"More than likely, I don't see that I would vote for it," said Gardella of the appeal, adding the district has already spent a lot on the referendum.

As of Sept. 20, the tally was at about $253,000 to craft, then defend, the referendum, with about $116,000 of that amount racked up during the lawsuit.

Commissioners decided in May 2016 to put a referendum on the ballot mainly asking residents to grant it the authority to start collecting a property tax. Without it, officials warned, at least one station would close and staff would be cut.

That August, Edward Hoofnagle, an Indian Rocks Beach commissioner and district resident, sued the fire district, claiming the wording of the referendum was misleading.

Voters approved the referendum in November by a 52 percent vote. As the lawsuit moved through the courts, district officials crafted a budget for the next fiscal year, which began Sunday, that included about $1.5 million in revenue from a tax of 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable value. Commissioners initially approved the tax and budget last month.

But just weeks before the looming budget deadline, Circuit Judge Jack St. Arnold sided with Hoofnagle and threw out the referendum.

The board, under the impression it had to continue what was already in motion, doubled down on the tax at a Sept. 27 meeting with the plan not to spend the money and return it to residents if it decided not to appeal or lost an appeal.

"You totally annihilated our trust," said Nancy Izor-Obarski, one of about 40 to 50 disgruntled residents who attended the meeting. "Just who is it are you representing if you vote yes on this budget tonight?"

The meeting erupted into chaos. One man yelled at commissioners, calling them disgusting, as another filmed the ruckus on his phone with his own narration: "We will be illegally taxed now."

Residents were not the only ones with ruffled feathers. Property Appraiser Mike Twitty later called the board's decision "damaging to the public trust that so many elected and appointed officials in this county work incredibly hard to instill every day."

Laura Martin, the commissioner who represents Indian Rocks Beach, said she agreed, adding that she "didn't understand what was going on" when she voted to approve the tax.

"Stuff got shoved at me so fast that some of it slipped past me," she said. "I felt bad about it to tell you the truth."

Bruni said Twitty's comments were "out of line." He said the board was following guidance from the county tax collector's office that turned out to be incorrect. Andrea DiFonte, a spokeswoman for the tax collector, said the office gave no such guidance.

In need of clarification, the property appraiser asked the judge for guidance on whether he should add the tax to the tax roll, which determines what will show up on tax bills. It took just a day for the ruling: don't do it.

Meanwhile, the district had organized an emergency meeting to consider a tax rate of $0, keeping it on life support while avoiding any money changing hands.

It didn't matter to Twitty, who said he wasn't going to include any tax on the tax roll. Residents also weren't appeased, maintaining that even a $0 rate would be illegal.

The end product, approved 4-0 by the board with Commissioner Lawrence Schear absent, killed the tax completely.

The room burst into applause.

While a victory, it was a fleeting one for some residents. Hoofnagle said he is turning his attention to ensuring the board doesn't appeal and is encouraging residents to attend the meeting.

Kelly Cisarik, an Indian Rocks Beach resident who regularly speaks at meetings, said she will feel more comfortable once the appeal is off the table.

"I'd like to say I was satisfied with it (the revised resolution)," she said. "But I suspect there's another shoe that may drop."

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

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