Whether you call it a tax, an assessment or a fee, if it’s money coming out of the pockets or accounts of Marco Island taxpayers, there is an organization that will be watching where that money goes.
It’s the Marco Island Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit watchdog organization of about 650 members who work to keep residents’ taxes low and their money going to the right places. It was founded in 1975 to keep an eye on Collier County government spending and tax collecting, but shifted focus when the City of Marco Island incorporated about 10 years ago.
Several members, including the president of the association, plan to vocally oppose the fire assessment in Monday’s City Council meeting. MITA members have opposed all fees and assessments, including the fire assessment, while supporting the traditional funding of city government through property taxes.
President Fay Biles has a background that comes in handy when taking on city government issues. In the case of the fire assessment, Biles said she brings forth a decade of experience serving as the chairwoman of the Emergency Medical Services Advisory Committee of Collier County and three degrees in health sciences, including a double doctorate in health sciences and communication.
This background tipped Biles off that perhaps the consulting firm, Government Services Group, Inc. miscalculated the portion of EMS versus fire service when determining how much could be assessed to Marco Island property owners.
Medical background or not, other residents have also asked why EMS, fire and police respond to many of the same calls.
“Diesel fuel is extremely high ... Stop sending three sirens up our streets. People have complained for years,” Biles exclaimed.
Council set the maximum rate for the fire assessment at $79 annually for a single family residence. This preliminary rate is slightly higher for condominium units, commercial and industrial properties. The assessment may be lowered and some residents say they would like for it to be done away with completely.
Marco Island Fire Rescue Chief Mike Murphy said the fire assessment is a “fair” way to pay for fire service. Property owners will pay based on average use of fire service per property type such as single family, multi-family, commercial and industrial versus paying based on taxable property value which is partially determined upon whether a residence is homesteaded.
Secondly, he said the fire assessment allows for fire service to remain appropriately funded regardless of what the state legislature and overall economy may do to diminish the amount of money collected from property taxes.
Councilors Chuck Kiester and Wayne Waldack have supported the fire assessment for similar reasons, based on their comments in previous meetings.
The only councilor to vote against the assessment so far is Ted Forcht.
Vocal residents in support of the new fire assessment have yet to come forward and speak on the issue, but several have spoke up against it.
Many of the residents against it are members of MITA. The taxpayers association is taking on many issues in this year’s budget process. Some of them are likely to come up in Monday’s City Council meeting such as the inclusion of six new city employees which will remain in the budget according to City Manager Steve Thompson.
The positions will not be filled immediately and each will be determined pending the results of a productivity report which will be complete in the next several months, he said.
“They should not be adding anybody in this economic state ... They’re spending money now that nobody knows where it’s coming from,” Biles said.
While MITA members address some other budget items Monday, Biles said she plans to speak up primarily about the fire assessment. Her primary challenge is that the recommended fire assessment rates have been calculated on false data.
The GSG consulting firm hired by the city calculated that 9 percent of the Marco Island Fire Department’s budget is used toward EMS. EMS may not be paid for through assessments, so this ratio is critical in determining the amount of the fire assessment.
Biles says the ratio of 91:9 is not possible.
“The vast majority of calls are medical calls, not fire calls,” she said.
Biles added that she sought guidance from Collier County officials who “didn’t want to mess with it because it’s Marco Island. Why is there bad blood between Collier County and Marco?” she pondered aloud.
Biles shared some data collected in Collier County that may highlight her concerns.
The figures that Biles found to be startling are based on the consulting firm’s report that indicates that 685 fire calls in a year cost the fire district more than $4 million.
At that rate a fire call would cost $6,000 on Marco Island, at least three times the cost of the county’s average which is less than $2,000 per call, she said.
“GSG’s report needs to be corrected before City Council can approve an assessment based on their information,” Biles wrote in a plea to City Council Wednesday for them to reconsider their position on the assessment.
MITA members and other residents oppose the fire assessment for other reasons as well.
Amadeo Petricca is also a member of the MITA board of directors. As a retired accountant, Petricca said he always looks at the “devious side of people” when it comes to money matters.
He says he opposes the fire assessment because unlike property taxes, the fire assessment cannot be deducted from Federal Income Taxes. Petricca said he also sees the fire assessment as a potential way to lose control over how the money is spent and how quickly the assessment rises.
MITA members are frequently present at City Council meetings to help protect residents, particularly the interests of the average homeowner rather than commercial interests.
“There are only a handful of us really fighting for the taxpayers of the island,” Petricca said.
He said he joined MITA last year because he saw Council working to protect commercial interests and MITA as an organization working to protect residents.
Petricca said although he is a member of MITA he doesn’t always represent the organization.
“Sometimes I freewheel ... (Biles) has to hold me back sometimes,” he said.
An issue that Petricca said bothers him is the misappropriation of funds. He remains upset about his finding that money set aside specifically to place electric lines underground continues to be used to pay for the electricity going to street lights on Collier Boulevard.
Petricca is opposed to a similar idea that will be presented in Monday’s City Council meeting.
Finance Director Bill Harrison is proposing that an 8 percent surcharge on customers’ water bills be used for something other than its original intent. The 8 percent charge on water bills was to be used toward rebuilding the water treatment plant, a need that came from the septic tank replacement program.
City Council will be discussing the idea of using the $1.66 million raised from this surcharge on the water bill to make up for lost revenue caused by water restrictions.
Harrison said South Florida Water Management District’s once a week watering rules “coincidentally” caused about a $1.66 million loss in money received by the utility.
“They’re always looking to mitigate their losses,” Petricca said and added that the residents can’t always make up for such losses.
“The only other option is for City Council to recognize the operating deficit and run off the reserves of the system. There is not much in reserves because it’s a young utility,” Harrison said.
If City Council approves the proposal, the 8 percent surcharge will remain in effect one extra year. The first 25 years is to pay for the treatment plant and the money collected this year will instead be used for operating expenses, causing the 8 percent charge to remain for the next 26 years.
The City Council meeting is 5:30 p.m., Monday, in the Community Room, 51 Bald Eagle Drive next door to the police station.
Other items for discussion include:
– Increasing outdoor special events at the Esplanade.
– A draft resolution for an interlocal agreement between the city and the District School Board of Collier County regarding the possible future development of Tract K.
The full agenda is available on the City of Marco Island’s Web site www.cityofmarcoisland.com.