City Council – Special Meeting – Fire Assessment Resolution
Editor’s Note: This story has been edited to correct why review rates will decline.
A divided Ocala City Council voted Tuesday not to increase fire assessment rates for the upcoming 2022-23 fiscal year.
The vote was 3 to 2, with council members Kristen Dreyer, Barry Mansfield and chairman Ire Bethea voting against a raise. Council members Jay Musleh and Jim Hilty wanted one.
Bethea, who voted last, broke the tie after hesitating for several seconds. After the final vote was cast, members of the public cheered.
In class:Residents pack the courtroom to hear about the City of Ocala’s $80 million fire bill payment
Delete the “interim” tag:In a 4-1 vote, the Ocala City Council nominates Pete Lee as City Manager
Remains the same:Ocala council tentatively maintains same mileage rate for 2022-23
The evaluation will bring in $9.2 million. With the increase in rates, it would have brought in $11.5 million.
City council members met in a special meeting at city hall on Tuesday to discuss the issue. If the rate increases had been approved, the valuation would have brought in about $11.5 million. With the resolution failing, council members decided on a rate schedule that will bring in $9.2 million, the same income he receives for the current year.
Council members were advised that while the amount collected remains the same, the rate will decrease slightly due to updated property unit calculations and incident data in the revised study.
Musleh asked how the city will make up the difference between the $11.5 million requested and the $9.2 million that will be received. City Manager Pete Lee assured council that the budget would be balanced.
Moving forward, Lee sees challenges. He said the board could consider some reductions and explore other funding options to make up the difference.
Looking ahead, Lee said the city plans to build a new fire station in 2023 and add additional firefighters and a training center in 2024.
Council members express their thoughts
Musleh said the timing for raising rates is wrong, but necessary; Postponing it now only leaves an even tougher decision next year.
Hilty echoed that point, saying “kicking the box isn’t really the best option.”
He said that although it is difficult today, “it can be much more difficult in the future”. He said he would like to keep rates unchanged, but that’s a risk, not a risk he’s willing to take.
Dreyer, who led the charge to deny the proposed rate hike, said the board heard from the audience. With so many prices going up, including electricity rates, she urged fellow councilors to “do the right thing” and reject the proposed increase.
Several residents and at least one business owner said the rate increase would be unfair. They said that some people live on a fixed income and face various price increases; city officials need to find a way to ease the burden.
Mansfield said while he could see both sides, he believed there had to be “another way” to generate income. He said the city can think outside the box and find a solution.
Bethea said “a lot of people are hurting right now” and it’s “costing taxpayers”.
Context of fire assessment
About two years ago, an appeals court ruled that the city’s fire fee was in fact an unconstitutional tax. The fee is no longer charged. Instead, the city adopted a fire assessment schedule.
The charges had been paid from the bills of city utility customers. The assessment is a separate levy to support the Ocala Fire Rescue budget.
Contact Austin L. Miller at [email protected] or @almillerosb