Thursday, September 27th, 2012 at 10:34am

Surprise in the Mail–Lake County Class Action Suit Part 1

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Thousands of Lake County property owners received in their mailboxes over the last week, a class action suit notice from Class Counsel-McLin Burnsed in regards to the Fire Rescue Special Assessment from 2005 to 2008.  This notice potentially affects more than 60,000 property owners in Lake County’s unincorporated area, and this class action lawsuit could potentially cost Lake County government upwards of $12 million.

What is the Suit About?

The class action lawsuit alleges that Lake County government illegally taxed residents for rescue services through the fire non-ad valorem assessment portion of property taxes.  Let us explain this in layman’s terms.

When you get your property tax bill from the Property Appraiser’s Office, the amount you pay in assessed value for your property is based on your property value times the amount of millage rate per category.  These property millage rate taxes are determined through a political and budgetary process that Citizens for Better Government, L.L.C. is currently fighting.  For example, the current Lake County millage rate is $4.7309 per one thousand dollars of property value.  If your property/house is valued at $75,000 then your assessed tax bill for just Lake County’s portion (after homestead exemption) would be $236.50.  In the list of taxable assessments categories, Lake County also imposes a .3853 cent mill for ambulance services.

On the back of your Trim Notice (Truth in Millage) is a section entitled “Non-Ad Valorem Assessments”.  This year, there are two listed for property owners who live outside the cities in the county.  The first one listed is Lake County Fire for $181.00, and second one listed is Lake County Solid Waste for $184.00.  The Lake County Board of County Commissioners implemented these taxes on each piece of property in the unincorporated areas for services rendered to the property.  These taxes are not based on property values; rather, these taxes represent the property owner’s share to provide fire and trash services to the property.  That is the key element–“services to the property.”

Let’s be clear–tax advocates believe these “Non-Ad Valorem Assessments” are unfair because people with much lower-priced properties pay a disproportionate share percentage compared to those with higher-priced properties.  These “Non-Ad Valorem Assessments” can be imposed with fewer restrictions and some have suggested they are not fair.

The basis for this class action lawsuit is that in the budget years 2005/2006, 2006/2007 and 2007/2008, Lake County included in its Non-Ad Valorem Fire Assessment tax cost for advanced life support rescue services, which should have been paid by the Ambulance Assessment with the $0.3853 millage rate.

The Law Behind the Class Action Suit

The Florida Supreme Court ruled in the City of Fort Lauderdale v SMM Properties case that traditional fire and first responder basic life support were appropriate for “Non-Ad Valorem Assessments” to properties; however, advanced life support did not provide the special benefit to the property.  In short, the Supreme Court ruled the county could tax a property owner to provide basic fire and emergency first responder services for their property, but any services beyond that must be paid through the county’s general fund or other means from the individual being treated.  We believe this was a correct decision, because it should not be the burden of all property owners to pay for advanced emergency treatment for people being shuttled to a hospital.

The class action lawsuit stems from a decision made by then Lake County Manger Cindy Hall with approval of the Lake County Board of County Commissioners to include advance life support services in the Lake County Fire Non-Ad Valorem Assessments property taxes.

As you will find out in Part 2 of our report in The Right Side of the Lake, it appears the decision to cheat the taxpayers of Lake County was deliberate.  One big point to note–intent or ignorance of the law carries no weight in the ultimate outcome; however,  it will clearly show whether or not  Lake County government functioned in the best interest of its taxpayers.

Current Status of the Class Action Lawsuit

The court ordered mediation was held on June 15, 2012, between representatives of Lake County and the law firm of McLin Burnsed in an effort to amicably resolve the suit.  No agreement could be reached and the class action lawsuit is now set to go forward with a trial date possibly in the spring of 2013.  According to our sources, the average property owner in Lake County’s unincorporated areas could receive a settlement ranging from $50 to $75.

This lawsuit does not completely reflect on the current Lake County Commission, as only two members–Welton Cadwell and Jennifer Hill–remain on the board from that time period, and there is evidence to suggest that former County Manager Cindy Hall and current Lake County Attorney Sandy Minkoff misguided the commission.

Current Chairperson Leslie Campione (who is a lawyer) probably understands fully the legal predicament this class action lawsuit has placed upon Lake County, and we suspect it is going to take her leadership to resolve this issue.  Before Commissioner Campione was elected to serve on the commission, the sage advice of County Attorney Minkoff was never questioned; and, in this case, it probably should have been.

The one big clue that this lawsuit will be big trouble for Lake County is what has occurred since 2008–Lake County has stopped including advance life support services to be included in the fire Non-Ad Valorem Assessment.  In our view, they stopped it because they realized it was illegal.

In the 2005 to 2008 time period, when Lake County implemented this illegal tax assessment, the county’s budget and coffers were overflowing with cash from the housing boom.  In addition, the crush of the economic collapse had not hit, and there was absolutely no reason for county officials to pick the pockets of its taxpayers.  In the private world, if someone lies about something in order to take your money they would be thrown in jail, but this possible $12 million class action lawsuit will probably only result in more misery for the people that originally got gypped–the Lake County taxpayers.

We have obtained a copy of the lawsuit and frequently asked questions from McLin Burnsed for our readers to review.  This is a very serious problem that, in our view, Lake County should settle instead of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees down the drain.

It was a mistake for Lake County government to not come to some form of agreement in mediation, because this lawsuit looks hopeless.  In the next edition of The Right Side of the Lake we are going to share some details which support our hopeless conclusion for this class action lawsuit.

Finally, pass this newsletter around to everyone you know who lives in the unincorporated areas of Lake County, because many property owners have no idea what this notice means.  It is important for all of these homeowners to understand the facts of the class action lawsuit and their rights.

The easiest and fastest way to get your copy of The Right Side of the Lake is to “Like Us” on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rightsideofthelake.

Please forward this email to everyone on your list.  If you have not signed up for our free email newsletter service, be sure to sign up at our website www.lakecountygov.info.

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7 Responses to “Surprise in the Mail–Lake County Class Action Suit Part 1”

  1. Joe Taxpayer says:

    keep my money, and fire the people still employeed that did not follow the law (Minkoff)

  2. Name Dave says:

    The winner in this is the law firm.. Tax payers will lose. We will get a check for $50.00 and the law firm will get a check for $50.00 time each member of the class. All the money will come from the taxpayers not the erant public officials.

  3. Name says:

    This reminds me of another class action suit against the county a few years ago. If you pulled a building permit (either for new construction or remodeling) in the unincorporated areas, the county would not give you your Certificate of Occupancy (CO) until you DEEDED the section of your land commonly referred to as the easement to the county. You had to sign a quit claim deed giving the county ownership of that land (you still had to maintain it) and they didn’t reimburse you for it. In legal terms that is known as a “taking.” They were intimidating the county residents believing no one would dare stand up to them. Several property owners retained this same law firm to protect our rights and the residents of Lake County won. Unfortunately the department director who orchestrated this policy of “taking” your property is still employed with the county and was not even disciplined. This is another case where the county KNEW better but did it anyway. Most all of the commissioners have known of this issue since Aug. 2008 but it was only when local residents began putting pressure on them did they attempt to cover this up. It seems the county leadership, including our county attorney, only react to our concerns when presented with legal action. Believe me, there are plenty of other incidents which could, and probably will, find the county defending themselves in court over their arrogant actions.

  4. Read the minutes from this meeting. Everyone was there when Bill Neron told them this was illegal. He and his staff even disclosed the supreme court ruling to Minkoff and the Tallahassee attorney’s. Sanford Minkoff done it his way as usual. This evidence alone is enough to prove he is guilty of knowing this was illegal before they done it! These are the people that should be paying the McLin, Burnsed and all the other legal fees and costs incurred by the taxpayers for their corrupt actions. Why shoul we taxpayers keep footing the bills when our county officials and county attorney knowingly and wilfully violate the laws?

    Taken directly from the minutes of this board meeting.

    A REGULAR MEETING OF THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS
    SEPTEMBER 3, 2002 –

    The Lake County Board of County Commissioners met in regular session on Tuesday,
    September 3, 2002, at 9:00 a.m., in the Board of County Commissioner’s Meeting Room, Lake County Administration Building, Tavares, Florida. Commissioners present at the meeting were: Robert A. Pool, Chairman; Welton G. Cadwell, Vice Chairman; Jennifer Hill; Catherine C. Hanson; and Debbie Stivender. Others present were: Sanford A. “Sandy” Minkoff, County Attorney; William “Bill” Neron, County Manager; Wendy Taylor, Executive Office Manager, Board of County Commissioner’s Office; Barbara Lehman, Chief Deputy Clerk, County Finance; and Toni M. Riggs, Deputy Clerk.

    PUBLIC HEARING –
    RESOLUTION – FIRE AND RESCUE ASSESSMENTS

    Mr. Bill Neron, County Manager, stated that he would like to make a very brief presentation to bring the Board up to date on a number of matters relating to the fire and rescue assessment issue. Mr. Neron explained that, in 1998, the Board adopted a five year program relating to improvements in the fire rescue department. At that time, the plan called for hiring up to 75 firefighters and opening two additional stations within that five year period, which goes through next fiscal year, and there was to be a 5% increase in the assessments each fiscal year to fund those improvements. Over the past several years, due to the demand and growth in the County, the County has actually hired 105 firefighters and opened two additional stations and has two additional stations on line to be opened next fiscal year. The County has funded these improvements over the last several years primarily out of the reserves in the Fire Rescue Fund, which is funded by a Municipal Service Benefit Unit (MSBU) in the unincorporated area, and only the unincorporated area residents are charged for this service, with most of the cities doing their own There are a few cities that have combined with the County and are part of the MSBU. Mr. Neron stated that, because of the increases in the level of service over and above which was planned, the County has run out of reserves in the Fire Rescue Fund. It is being proposed for the next fiscal year that the fire assessment fee for residential be increased from $94.50 to $118.03 per year. He stated that, about a week and a half ago, staff got a recent Supreme Court decision that related to the funding of fire protection services. The decision determined that the medical related aspect of the fire department/fire rescue department can no longer be funded from a special assessment, which primarily benefits property. There has to be a rational nexus between the amount charged to the property, and the benefit received to the property. The Supreme Court decision says that the fire/medical related aspects benefit people and not property, therefore, you have to use a funding source, other than special assessments, to pay for this service. Mr. Neron stated that staff has reviewed a range of County risks BCC Board Meeting Minutes Page 11 of 69 with Mr. Sandy Minkoff, County Attorney, and his office, as well as their Tallahassee attorneys who have been involved in the County’s special assessment cases in the past. Mr. Neron stated that the Board could do nothing and face the potential of lawsuits, with some potentially severe impacts. He stated that
    staff is recommending that they make no change to the overall fire rescue budget or program, but pay for those medical related costs out of a different pocket. Mr. Neron explained that, because of the time frame, it left staff little opportunity to find another pocket to go to without completely readvertising the budget, which staff is not recommending they do. Based on their best judgment, they have found that about $1.6 million of the fire rescue department budget is medical related. Staff has contacted Lake Sumter Emergency Medical Services (EMS), and their director has agreed to recommend to their Board that they fund $200,000 of the $1.6 million, which will cover the advanced life support (ALS) stations, which the County operates in Pine Lakes, Lady Lake, and Astor. Mr. Neron stated that staff did consider getting the fire department out of the ALS business but, when they talked to Mr. Jim Judge, Executive
    Director, Lake Sumter EMS, and looked at the additional costs for him to provide the same coverage in those areas, the cost to do this would be about twice as much as the $200,000. Staff is recommending that the Board continue with its current arrangement, and for Lake Sumter EMS to reimburse the County $200,000. Mr. Neron stated that the net amount to fund from a different pocket is about $1.4 million, and this will have to be funded from a Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU), or an ad valorem tax revenue source derived from the unincorporated area. Based on current assessed values, staff believes that it would be about .27 mills. Since they cannot do that this year, because of advertising and other requirements, staff is recommending that the Board borrow $1.4 million from the General Fund and look toward doing a MSTU in the unincorporated area of the County in the future years. Based on their best estimates, staff anticipates the range to be about .35 mills next year. Staff is hoping that they can work with the Florida Association of Counties (FAOC) to get some of the State general law changed in this regard. If the Board approves the staff recommendation, to borrow $1.6 million from the General Fund, the proposed assessment for next fiscal year can be reduced from $118.03 to $100.55, which is a $6 increase over the current assessment. The borrowed amount of $1.4 million will have to be paid back over a five year period.

    Commr. Pool opened the public hearing portion of the meeting and called for public comment.

  5. If the winner in this is McLin Burnsed good for them at least they had the nads to stand up to the Lake courthouse mafia something the FDLE, FBI and the IRS sure as hell has not done.

    Personally my whole neighborhood has decided we are going to contact them and tell them they can keep our share of the settlements or donate them to any of the movements fighting public corruption just for being the ones with guts enough to do the right thing.

    On second thought I am going to suggest they donate it to the Right Side of the Lake for likewise having the nads to allow the truth about Lake County corruption to be told on this site.

  6. Let’s think about this. Let’s assume that the RSOL is correct about the law on this, and I have no reason to believe they are not, who is the real winner? In most class action lawsuits, there is a seperate entity, with a seperate cash flow that is the defendant. In this case, although I agree, we sometimes should have to pay for stupid mistakes at the ballot box (see Obama v McCain), if you sign up for this as part of the lawsuit, are you not in fact suing yourself and everyone else in the county. Where do you think the settlement finds will come from. Not Hill and Cadwell. Certainly not Pool, Stivender or Hansen. No they will come from your future taxes. That is everyone in the county, not just the affected homeowners. Add that on top of the already $17 million dollar budget deficit. There go more services and reserves.

    Will you really get anything for this? Most members of a class action lawsuit get less than a dime on every settlement dollar. The rest goes to, wait for it, lawyers and court costs. The only winner in this is McLin Burnsed.

  7. Unfortunately it is we the people of Lake County who will as this article points out once again suffer the consequences for allowing these people to abuse us in the first place.

    But, even more unfortunately this is only one issue and one action taken by this long ongoing culture of corruption operating Lake County.

    We still have untold numbers of friends and families of the well connected getting FREE home makeovers and new FREE HOMES while the homeless live in the shadows of some of these homes under the pines in gray and blue tarps made into tents.

    As you say “In the private world, if someone lies about something in order to take your money they would be thrown in jail, but this possible $12 million class action lawsuit will probably only result in more misery for the people that originally got gypped–the Lake County taxpayers.
    The truth is public officials are not really exempt from criminal prosecution. The criminals among the public officials have an unwritten rule to exempt themselves from same.

    This lawsuit has been filed long ago. Minkoff tried every trick in the book to dissuade its progress like he has done so many in the past. When all else fails he’ll call in that special law firm he uses and they’ll give him a referral fee and start all kinds of defense actions and pleadings to earn a big fat and inflated fee and as you say in the end that “hopeless conclusion for this class action lawsuit” will come to pass. All Sanford Minkoff has done is what he does best; stall the inevitable. On the other hand we the victims of this taxpayer abuse are now at an even worse point in time to suffer these consequences. But, we could sure use that return of the spoils of $50-$75 bucks.

    Just wait until all those secret little double and triple billings on the BCC building projects hit the airwaves. McKee’s office, the parking garage and the courthouse expansion with all that state sales tax billings and refunds to those funky accounts. And we don’t even want to mention those funky contractor deals with the LCSB. Its only money (OPM) Our peoples money!

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