Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed
A poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed,
Then one day he was shootin' at some food,
And up through the ground came a bubblin' crude.
Oil, that is, black gold, Texas tea.
Theme song from "The Beverly Hillbillies"
Open your city water bill, Fruitland Park residents.
Poke into its dark recesses, and you'll find your monthly donation to the city. No, that reference is not sarcasm.
You are donating, every single one of you, every single month. In three years, you've donated nearly $500,000. Pretty impressive for citizens of a little city. And how kind of 100 percent of you to support your local government beyond what you already pay in taxes!
Each and every month, customers of the city's water utility are billed $4 as a "user fee" for the Police Department and another $4 as a "user fee" for the Fire Department, for a total of $8 a month, or $96 a year.
Since 2009, the city has been imposing this tax — let's call it what it really is — and listing it on the monthly water and garbage bill. It shows up as "FIRE S" and "LAWENF" on the bill — right above the bold line where the city threatens to cut off your water if you don't pay by a certain date.
What the bill doesn't state is that you do not have to make the donation if you don't want to. This whole thing is a governmental scam to trick Fruitland Park water customers out of an extra $96 annually — and it's working.
Yee-haw, Granny! The money is rolling in!
City officials slipped this little charge on to the bill figuring that no one would fight it after simply passing an ordinance giving themselves the power to charge the fees. City Clerk Diane Gibson Smith said the ordinance was advertised to the public as required by law, but she said she didn't recall whether commission members tried to reach out to the public in any other way.
Asked whether the city officials ever told customers — on utility bills or in other written material — that the fees were "voluntary," Smith said she was "sure" that they had. But she couldn't recall how.
The fees look official on the bill, and who but maybe a lawyer specializing in municipal work would think to question them? Indeed, no one did for three years. Now, however, former City Commissioner Jim Richardson has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of utility customers, claiming that the fees are illegal and unconstitutional.
The state has established a way for local governments to raise money, and that is through property taxes, according to the suit drawn up for Richardson — who lost his re-election bid in November — by Eustis attorney Derek Schroth. Other forms of taxation require studies and deliberate steps, not just slapping a random figure on the utility bill. Property taxes have limits, and there are strict rules that lay out how the rates must be set.
What Fruitland Park did was impose some crazy kind of hillbilly tax.
In addition, the suit argues, there's no logical connection between what Fruitland Park customers are being charged and what they get for it.
Never mind that homeowners already pay property taxes to support city services at the rate of $4.64 for every $1,000 of taxable value on their houses. That amounts to $464 a year in city taxes for a house valued at $100,000 after the usual homestead exemptions. In other words, Fruitland Park commissioners in effect slyly jacked up taxes by 20 percent on that particular home.
Fruitland Park City Attorney Scott Gerken said the fees are legal under the state's home-rule powers for governments, but minutes of commission meetings from 2009 show that he told commissioners he was "not a big fan" of such fees and warned that they could be challenged. He said in an email last week that he'll be calling a closed meeting of city commissioners soon to discuss the suit. The fees, he said, were an attempt to make the cost of government "more equitable."
Gerken acknowledged that customers don't have to pay the fees. However, the ordinance warns that residents who call the police or fire departments might be charged for the service if they don't "voluntarily" contribute. Gerken said police and fire departments will continue to answer calls from the homes of those who elect not to contribute.
Smith said residents who don't want to pay can simply deduct the $8 fee from their remittance, and the city will take the charge off the bill if they do so for three months. Or customers can call City Hall at 352-360-6727 or email Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org to have the "donation" removed.
So far, of the approximately 1,850 utility customers, only Richardson has demanded that the city stop charging him.
Eight bucks a month is barely a single lunch at the local diner. But that's not the point.
Two things are distasteful about these charges. First is the underhanded way the city went about increasing taxes. The second is the supercilious notion that these fees would be "more equitable." In this case, "more equitable" simply means that people who can afford less will pay more.
Fruitland Park needs to get right with its citizens. There is no point in this fight going to court, where it will simply cost money and further embarrass the city. These fees were a misguided, foolish attempt to trick the public. Admit it and fix it. Do it now.
Lritchie@tribune.com. Her blog is at OrlandoSentinel.com/laurenonlake. Lauren invites you to connect with her on Facebook at facebook.com/laurenonlake.