The Loxahatchee Town Council on Tuesday, May 7 approved the renewal of a contract with Munilytics to evaluate the non-ad valorem assessment process that was used by the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District before it became dependent to the town.
Chris Wallace with Broward-based Munilytics said the process started last year but was stopped. He recommended that for this year, the town continue what it has been doing due to the delay in evaluating the assessment process.
“We were originally hired to change the methodology and expand upon it,” Wallace said. “We look at it as both an intertwined roadway and drainage assessment. We feel in this community, they are inseparable and would best be served as the same assessment, but we work with you in determining what it is you want to assess, what it is you want residents and property owners to pay for, and we look at your plans for what you want to do. We work with your staff; we work with you. We definitely want to hear what the community’s issues are, because we are going to be addressing those through not only your maintenance and capital efforts, but also in how you pay for it.”
Wallace said the purpose of the assessment evaluation is to see that the properties are specifically benefited and that the costs are apportioned fairly.
“On that latter matter, what’s fair to him may not be fair to you, so you go back and forth to find out what’s mostly fair,” he said. “You will ultimately be the arbiters of what is fair to the property owners as a whole, because sometimes it’s difficult to get what’s fair in everyone’s mind. In fact, I never have seen it.”
Wallace noted that assessments should be kept consistent over time and not changed unless something happens that warrants it.
“That’s what happened last year,” he said. “We bid on this project, the town bid it out… we were awarded the contract, we started the work, but we had this unanticipated action with the legislation, and the subsequent vote, and that changed the status of what we were doing.”
Wallace said Munilytics never billed the town for its work in progress.
“We felt like the town would come back eventually,” he said. “Earlier on, we did remain in communication. I think you also had some turmoil with the changes in management, so when we were contacted, we brought everyone up to speed, and I think that’s where we’re at.”
Wallace said he has had extensive communication recently with the town attorney and other staff. “We’re ready to go,” he said.
Vice Mayor Dave DeMarois asked if contracting with Munilytics was “reinventing the wheel.”
“Wellington has been doing this for 20 years,” DeMarois noted.
“Everyone has a different wheel, so it has to be particular to your community,” Wallace said. “Last year, we were moving along with what we were going to do, and I think you probably would have been happy with it, but then the thing just stopped dead cold. We’re prepared to pick it back up. Most of it is going to have to be redone because the properties have changed. However, I don’t think the best approach is to change what you’re doing radically, but I think you may want to revisit the whole assessment approach that you have.”
Wallace said the object of reevaluating assessments is to avoid property owners challenging their assessment, and then the town must go back and adjust it in fairness to them.
Councilwoman Laura Danowski pointed out that the annual assessment is currently a flat $200 per year/per acre, whether the taxpayer is on a quarter-acre or 20-acre property.
“At the end of your task, there will be a different amount for a single-family home on a quarter-acre on a dirt road versus a church on a county road?” Danowski asked.
“There may be,” Wallace said. “I think what we’re recommending is to pretty much just update your roll at this late stage and kind of keep it with what you’ve been doing because that’s the thing that they’re familiar with. There’s no one really complaining about it, but it may not be the best thing for you moving forward.”
Wallace explained that just because something was best for the LGWCD as an independent entity, doesn’t mean that it’s best for the municipality.
“They basically had the assessment as their primary tool,” he said. “You have other sources of revenue.”
Wallace said he works with a lawyer to come up with a methodology that is legally defensible.
“Anyone can sue on these because it is potentially a taking of property, so you do have constitutional issues,” he said. “It’s a taking of property in the fact that if you do not pay your assessment, or any part of your property tax bill, at the end of the day, your property will be taken from you.”
Maniglia said there are properties that pay little or no assessments that perhaps should pay more, and Wallace said they would be looking at that during their evaluation. But he reiterated that his recommendation for this year is that assessments stay the same.
Mayor Robert Shorr noted that the bill from Munilytics is $3,000 more than the original bid of $30,245, and Wallace said that was due to additional work his company would be doing.
Shorr also noted that the amended bid includes $7,995 for attorney fees, and Wallace said the town could do the legal work in-house, but the attorney he works with is well versed in Florida case law and in seeing that the assessments are legally defensible.
Town Attorney Michael Cirullo noted that the Munilytics attorney’s rate is less than what the town pays its attorney.
After further discussion, DeMarois made a motion to approve the new contract package, which carried 5-0.