Court Overturns Fire Tax Referendum
By ANNE LINDBERG, TB Reporter
The Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District spent about $114,339 getting the referendum before the voters. The district has spent about $78,340 defending the referendum, according to court records and attorneys’ bills.
INDIAN ROCKS BEACH – Saying the ballot language was misleading and “did not accurately describe the purpose of the proposal,” a circuit court judge has overturned a referendum that granted a fire district the ability to collect property taxes.
The decision means that the Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue District will not be able to collect property taxes from residents. However, Tim Weber, the attorney for Edward Hoofnagle, the plaintiff, said the district could decide to appeal the order.
“I wouldn’t guarantee anyone that the tax won’t be” collected, Weber said. If, however, the district decides not to appeal, Weber said, “this would be the end.”
It’s unclear if the district will appeal. The interim fire chief, the head of the fire commission, and the district’s attorney were meeting late today (Sept. 20) to discuss the court’s decision. They declined to comment.
It is unclear how much an appeal could cost the district. It’s already spent about $192,679 getting the referendum passed and defending it. According to an affidavit by former fire Chief Sal D’Angelo, it cost the district $114,339 “in placing the challenged language on the ballot and preparing for the general election.” And, according to attorneys’ bills, the district has spent about $78,340 so far defending the referendum.
The case stems from a referendum that the Pinellas Suncoast district placed on the ballot in 2016. The district is an independent fire district that provides fire and emergency medical services for Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Shore, Belleair Beach, Indian Shore and a portion of the mainland. The district gets its money from Pinellas County for EMS but has to raise money from within the district for fire service. It does this by collecting annual and other fees from district property and business owners.
Fire district officials said they needed more funds to run the district and decided to go to voters to ask for permission to collect property taxes in addition to the fees to finance operations.They put a referendum called “Ad Valorem for Fire District Operating Expenses” on the November 2016 ballot. The summary of the referendum explained it this way: the district is “currently vested with the authority to levy ad valorem tax of up to 3 mills, subject to voter approval. Shall voters reduce the maximum millage rate to 2 mills and grant the district the authority to levy and collect the reduced ad valorem tax…?”
The referendum passed.
But before the election, Hoofnagle filed suit to stop it because he said he believed the language was misleading. The district had never collected a property tax so it was not reducing taxes, it was doing the opposite by creating an additional tax. Hoofnagle also objected to the title of the referendum saying it was unclear and should have referred to an “ad valorem tax” to give voters a clearer understanding of what was being asked.
The case did not come up until after the referendum passed, so Hoofnagle instead asked the court to overturn the vote.
On Friday (Sept. 15), circuit court Judge Jack R. St. Arnold sided with Hoofnagle.
“This court concludes that [the district] has engaged in the type of ‘advantageous but misleading wordsmithing’ that has been condemned and rejected by the Florida Supreme Court,” St. Arnold wrote in the decision. “This court finds that the purpose and effect of the referendum was to authorize Suncoast to levy a new ad valorem tax that had not previously existed. The title’s failure to use the word ‘tax’ after ‘ad valorem’ and the summary’s use of the words ‘reduce’ and ‘the reduced ad valorem tax’ does not accurately describe the chief purpose of the proposal and misleads the voter.
“Deception of the voting public is intolerable and should not be countenanced.”
For information about the Suncoast Fire and Rescue District, go to psfrd.org.
Pinellas Suncoast Fire and Rescue | Property Tax | Referendum | Tampa Bay News | TB Reporter
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