WMFR commissioners seek legislative change

West Manatee Fire Rescue Administration Building
West Manatee Fire Rescue Administration Building

BRADENTON – West Manatee Fire Rescue commissioners didn’t get quite what they bargained for when Attorney Jim Dye appeared before them to discuss the district’s practice of offering exemptions to assessments for some property owners.

While the district has historically offered assessment exemptions to all people and organizations allowed tax exemptions, Dye said an opinion from the Florida Attorney General to the North River Fire District on the matter says the fire districts don’t have the right to grant exemptions. Dye said his interpretation of the opinion given by the Attorney General is that the only exemptions to assessments allowed are those for government-owned properties used for government purposes that are not leased. Otherwise, the district could face legal action if some property owners are charged the fire assessment fee and others are not.

Historically, the district has given an exemption to everyone who would be exempted from ad valorem taxes – churches and parsonages, public schools, parks and recreation areas, colleges, hospitals, the disabled and disabled veterans of the armed services. Chief Tom Sousa said the exemptions affect about 200 properties in the district, amounting to around $76,000 in assessments. And now that commissioners know there’s a problem, the practice of granting exemptions can’t continue without legislative change at the local and state levels.

“The desire to do this is coming from a good place,” Dye said. “The risk is an audit if the district is found operating outside its scope of authority or ending in a lawsuit because someone gets a break they shouldn’t have and someone else feels they were unfairly assessed.”

He added that it’s unlikely but possible that continuing the practice without legislative change could open commissioners up to personal liability since it’s on the record they received a legal opinion on the matter. For someone who had the assessment exemption and lost it to take the district to court, Dye said, would place the property owner in a legally indefensible position because of the Attorney General’s opinion. He suggested sending a letter to all affected property owners explaining why the exemptions would no longer be granted.

“We just need to fix it,” Commissioner David Bishop said. “I don’t want to be doing something that I feel is wrong. We need to fix it through the Legislature, not just blindly send people a tax bill.”

“It’s a legislative fix,” Dye said. He reminded commissioners that it’s the state Legislature that created and governs special districts, including what powers their leaders have.

To make the exemptions legal, district commissioners need to do two things. The first is to change the district’s enabling act, which currently states assessments are set by board resolution but does not mention exemptions. A line would have to be added to allow for the exemptions even though exemptions are addressed in the assessment resolution. The second is to petition lawmakers in Tallahassee to change the legislation governing special districts to allow for exemptions. With deadlines looming for commissioners to set this year’s tax roll with the Manatee County Tax Assessor’s Office and set an assessment rate, some people who have never gotten a bill from the district for services may get one this year on their property tax statement.

“I think our hands are tied this first year,” Commissioner Randy Cooper said.

Bishop said that while he understands the necessity of the situation, it still doesn’t feel right to him.

“If we collected by ad valorem these people would be exempt,” he said. “We can’t put our heads in the sand. I think we have no choice now at this point than to assess these people.”

Commissioners rallied around Dye’s suggestion of writing a letter to each affected property owner explaining the situation and how the district is attempting to fix it.

“It needs to be a carefully worded letter to help them understand that we have no choice,” Commissioner George Harris said.

Commissioners voted unanimously for Dye to come back to them with suggested language to change the district’s enabling act and to present for discussion to state legislative delegates.

While the district cannot encourage affected property owners to lobby for change with the state legislature, Bishop and Harris both said they hope property owners will support the district in its move for legislative change.

“This needs action,” Harris said.