WUFT News

Ocala Faces Lawsuit Over Unauthorized User Fees

By on March 12th, 2014

Paying taxes is a staple in American society. Paying illegal taxes is a different story.

Ocala resident Dale Birch and small business Discount Sleep of Ocala filed a lawsuit against the city on Feb. 20 over emergency fire service user fees.

Derek Schroth, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the fees are illegal under Article 7 of the Florida Constitution because they are being charged in addition to taxes. General public services are already funded by taxes, making the fees unauthorized and therefore illegal, he said.

Ocala residents are not the only community that are pushing back on these types of fees. Schroth is also involved with a similar lawsuit representing residents of Wildwood.

About $49 million in fees appeared on residential and commercial utility bills from 2007 to 2011. Residents were charged $12 a month in 2007. The amount eventually grew to $15.20 a month. The monthly charge to business owners varied based on the square footage of their building.

City Attorney Patrick Gilligan said in a July 2006 city council memorandum that after consulting with Lewis, Longman &Waler, P.A., he believed the fee to be legally valid under Florida law.

To be a lawful user fee certain criteria must be met. One of those criteria is that the fee is voluntary.

According to the same memorandum, the fee is arguably voluntary because property owners could avoid the fee by not developing the property or by renting the property out.

Nothing is said about what people who already live in the area could do to avoid the fee.

Gilligan was unavailable for comment but Ocala City Manager Matthew Brower said the city had this fee examined by a legal team before charging it.

“This opinion, of course, has never been tested in the courts, and I guess that’s what ultimately will be tested here,” Brower said.

In 2011, Ocala filed a lawsuit for $572,265.70 against the Marion County School Board for refusing to pay the user fee, according to Exhibit J of the lawsuit

The school board is exempt from tax assessments but not from user fees.

Kevin Christian, spokesman for the Marion County School Board, said they’re not backing down.

“The school board is holding fast that it’s not responsible for these fees,” Christian said.

Schroth said the mixture of these two cases could be a real mess for Ocala.

“The same judge will be handling both of these cases, and it’s going to be interesting,” Schroth said.

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 Ocala utility customers were similarly affected.

The next step would be for a judge to approve the lawsuit, Schroth said. Though he isn’t sure when that will happen, it could be about six months from now.

“The obvious reason they’re a part of this is because they don’t want the city to continue to charge them an unlawful tax,” Schroth said.

Schroth said his clients had an additional incentive to file a claim because class representatives can be awarded more than someone who filed independently. The additional money serves as compensation for any inconveniences to the class representatives, such as depositions and court hearing attendance.

If the class is certified, all who paid this fee would be considered a class member unless they opt out.

According to the lawsuit, about 50,000 utility customers have been paying these fees. The lawsuit requests all amounts paid are refunded with interest less attorney’s fees.


This entry was posted in Local and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
 

More Stories in Local

Rodrigo Guerrero, 21, watches his older brother, Alfonso Guerrero, 30, brewing coffee using a "pour over" technique. Know Where Coffee specializes in providing artisan coffees that are made to order. Bradley Williams / WUFT

Third-Wave Coffee Culture Popularity Rises In Gainesville

Know Where Coffee opened its doors this month. The new establishment proves the third-wave coffee culture is rising in popularity, especially across local coffee shops in Gainesville.


Luke Watkins, the 28-year-old partner of Black Hog Farms, is working toward creating a weekly farmers market along the St. Johns River in Palatka. The Saturday market will feature local farmers, musicians, artists and food trucks.

Local Businessperson Plans Farmers Market For Palatka

While Palatka’s government hopes to attract visitors to their area with the riverfront development project, a local business owner has his own idea for bringing in more people.


Robert Yard performs a song for a toddler using a Lakota love flute at the Cedar Key Fine Arts Festival in Cedar Key, Florida. Yard held impromptu music lessons throughout the day for patrons that were curious about playing an instrument. (Photo by Sydnei Cartwright)

Patrons and Artists Pack Cedar Key for 51st Annual Fine Arts Festival

Cedar Key held its 51st annual Cedar Key Fine Arts Festival this past Saturday and Sunday, and experienced a large turnout from supporting counties and out-of-state visitors. The Festival showcased a number of different arts including jewelry, photography, wood making, and mixed media.


A group of 'dirty kids' fly a sign on the corner of SE 1st St and SE 2nd Pl while one patches up a jacket and another plays guitar on Jan. 23, 2015 in Gainesville​. Photo by Andrea Sarcos/WUFT News

‘Home-Free’ Squatters Find Community In Gainesville

An abandoned house in Gainesville became a home for a group of individuals that call themselves “dirty kids.” The dirty kids feel that they are different from homeless people.


IMG_8377

Chicken House Fire Kills 24,000 Chicks

Chickens die in a chicken house fire at Saavedra Farms on Wednesday night.


Thank you for your support

WUFT depends on the support of our community — people like you — to help us continue to provide quality programming to North Central Florida.
Become a Sustainer
I want to support FM 89.1/NPR
I want to support Florida's 5/PBS
Donate a Vehicle
Underwriting Payments