Former President Abraham Lincoln said government should be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” Residents of the City of Wildwood are questioning whether their local government is for the people.
Wildwood is currently facing a lawsuit filed by residents over controversial police user fees. The $5-a-month fee appeared on about 2,800 citizens’ water bills from 2005 to 2011, an annual revenue of about $168,000 for the city. About $1 million has been collected in total, and citizens want that money back.
Plaintiff’s attorney Derek Schroth said these fees are illegal under Article 7 of the Florida Constitution. Property taxes go toward the Wildwood general fund that pays for services everyone uses, almost half of which goes to police services.
The problem is the city is trying to charge an extra fee for city water users in addition to what they already pay in property taxes, Schroth said. Some cities charge a special assessment for fire services, which is subject to challenge, but this fee is different.
“There’s not even a gray area,” he said.
Former Wildwood City Attorney Jerri Blair sent a letter to Wildwood City Commissioners in 2011 warning them the fees could be declared unenforceable and advising them to revoke the fees.
“As you know I have brought this to your attention several times hoping you would put an end to the use of this funding device because it ultimately has a very, very high probability of being stricken,” Blair wrote in the letter. “The risk of this is increasing because other cities have put such fees into effect, and at some point a lawsuit will probably be filed. I suggest you repeal the police user tax ordinance as soon as possible.”
Wildwood City Manager Bill Ed Cannon had no comment on the lawsuit or the fees.
A class-action lawsuit is defined as a small group of people acting on behalf of a larger group. Schroth said this qualifies as a class-action lawsuit because all Wildwood water users were harmed in the same way.
A hearing was set to take place Jan. 22 to certify the class, but Wildwood needed an extension because it recently hired a new attorney to represent the city. The hearing has been postponed until May 29. If the class is certified, all who paid this fee would be considered a class member unless they opt out.
The claim said all amounts paid should be refunded with interest less attorney’s fees. The amount of money class members could get back depends on whether or not the lawsuit is settled or if it continues on to court. Some citizens are upset their local government unlawfully taxed them regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit.
“I was not aware they were charging me an illegal tax – very, very disappointing,” said Lisa Jodray, a longtime Wildwood resident. “I can’t understand why they would do that. It just takes away from my faith in government.”