Citing the interdependency between the millage rate and the Fire Services Assessment, City Manager John Szerlag proposed and City Council approved Monday night the "not to exceed" rate at 64 percent recovery of the city's fire services cost for the fiscal 2015 budget.
That recovery rate will bring in an estimated $18 million in revenue to the city. When the 2015 budget is finalized by Sept. 15 to be sent to the Lee County Tax Collector's office, both the millage rate of 7.7070 and fire assessment recovery rate can be set lower, but not increased. The city already has about $10 million in an escrow account that it collected in fire assessment fees for 2014.
"It's more prudent to go ahead financially for economic sustainability," said Szerlag.
Lacking a Florida Supreme Court ruling on the Fire Service Assessment methodology appeal case, the city is running out of time to decide whether to put the assessment on the tax collector's bill or send their own billing to property owners for 2015 as it did earlier this year for the 2014 assessment. That decision must be made by Sept. 15.
The methodology, which is the formula the city used to determine each property owner's assessment figure, is being challenged by a group of residents who decided to appeal a local Circuit Court's ruling validating the methodology in the city's favor. The Supreme Court currently is on its summer hiatus and chances are dwindling daily that a decision will be forthcoming in time for the 2015 budget.
By passing a resolution 7-1 Monday night, council approved expansion of the city's hardship deferral program to include the Fire Service Assessment. Deferrals already are in place to qualifying homeowners for special assessments and fees such as the utilities expansion project, capital facility expansion charges and other legacy programs.
To qualify, homeowners must prove financial hardship, live in the home with a homestead exemption in force, are not delinquent on their tax bills and are not in foreclosure. Residents must apply annually. By accepting the deferment, the city would place a lien on the property and recoup the money if and when the property is sold in the future.
The city currently sets aside a total of $66,462 in general fund money to cover 41 hardship deferrals, ranging from about $230 to a high of $3,100.
Council unanimously approved an ordinance amending the Land Use & Development Code regarding issuance of variances for undeveloped lots which are less than the code required 10,000 square feet.
A staff presentation pointed out that thousands of two-lot sites, generally located at the intersection of two roads, often are between 9,800 and 9,999 square feet. These lots were lawfully created in the 1960s during subdivision of Cape Coral.
In 1990, the city developed its code regulations permitting variances to be approved for these lots. To streamline the process for property owners, staff recommended any two-lot site less than 200 square feet under the required 10,000 square feet be approved at the staff level rather than go to Planning & Zoning Appeals. Any sites more than 200 square feet under still would go before P&Z.
Staff said about 95 percent of the city's undersized lots fall into the less than 200 square feet category.
The next regular City Council meeting is Aug. 11, but there is a special budget workshop meeting on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. in council chambers.