Miami eliminates current fire fee, settles dispute on old one
By Risa Polansky
Not only did Miami commissioners agree last week to repay property owners for illegally collected fire fees in a $15.5 million settlement, they also voted to eliminate a fee that the city continues to charge.
The decisions mark the beginning of the end of a long drawn-out scandal, commissioners said. One, Joe Sanchez, called the ordeal the "nightmare finally over."
The city began imposing the fee in 1998. It was later deemed unconstitutional.
Miami officials altered the fee in 2000 but did not eliminate it, and residents continue to pay the unwelcome charge.
"Since 2000, the city's fire assessment has been legal," Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said in a public statement last year. "Under this administration, the fire assessment has steadily decreased and will hopefully be eliminated altogether."
Commissioners and administrators have discussed in recent months eliminating the fee from next year's budget, to be adopted in September.
There was talk at last week's commission meeting of allowing the fee to be removed during budget drafting without a vote requiring it, but Commissioner Tomás Regalado insisted that "there's no way we can put this to bed" without formally eliminating the fee in conjunction with settling the lawsuit.
"If we're all supporting it, I don't see any harm in us handling it," Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones agreed.
The resolution removing the fee passed unanimously, as did the legislation approving the $15.5 million payout to the more than 80,000 property owners who paid the illegal fee.
The settlement requires court approval as to whether it is fair and equitable, city attorneys said — something the city's first attempt at redemption was not.
In a move they say was meant to make things right for all who paid the illegal rescue charge, the city in 2004 planned to repay $7 million to only a handful of claimants, leaving thousands out of the payout arrangement.
It doled out $3.5 million before the deal was reversed, requiring recipients to return their shares to the city.
Recipients of the illegal refunds have returned $2.3 million of the settlement, and the city is to seize property of those who owe the outstanding $1.2 million, said Scott Cole, an attorney representing the city.
The funds are to benefit Miami's fire department once collected, he said, as the original $3.5 million payout came from the department's capital improvement fund.
Those property owners due refunds will be required to apply, Mr. Cole said, and the amounts of the individual reimbursements are to be determined, as is when residents are to see the money.
Because some commissioners in the past claimed to have not understood that the first payout was only to a small group, attorneys took "great pains" to keep them thoroughly briefed this time around, said City Attorney Jorge Fernandez.
Briefings included written reports, PowerPoint presentations and in-person meetings, he said.
The vote on the $15.5 million payout was preceded by "hours of briefing," said Mr. Regalado, who sat on the commission in 2004 but was absent during the vote on the original payout. "Last time, it was like "five minutes, we have to go!'"
In voting to approve the original $7 million settlement, "I don't think my colleagues were acting with malice," he said. "I think everyone was given misinformation. They lied in the briefing."