A former City Council member accused city officials last week of illegally enacting a $50 fire service fee on property owners, and he advised them to rescind it.  Otherwise, he said, it will be challenged in the courts and ultimately overturned.

A former City Council member accused city officials last week of illegally enacting a $50 fire service fee on property owners, and he advised them to rescind it.  Otherwise, he said, it will be challenged in the courts and ultimately overturned.
City resident Eric Farrell stated that, when he was serving on council, he and Councilman John Gigliotti researched the question of whether fees could be imposed for services such as fire or police protection, and they sought a definitive legal opinion on the matter.
“We were told unequivocally that we could not [enact fees for services],” Farrell related.
Mayor Justin Taylor is disputing that, telling the NEWS that the Pa. Governor’s Center for Local Government Services has ruled that “the city is well within its right and it is completely legal for us to assess a fee for fire protection.”
During a meeting on Monday night, March 19, Farrell told the council members — some of whom he served with — that a fee can be assessed for something like a capital equipment purchase, such as a fire truck, then discontinued once the truck is completely paid off.  However, he added that “it cannot be done for general fund purposes,” as city officials did with the fire fee.
“You’re really charging a tax,” he argued.  Numerous city residents have said the same thing since the fee was initially proposed in December.
But Farrell was only beginning his assault upon the fire fee, and the process by which it was enacted.  He outlined several legal problems with the way in which the fee was first of all introduced by Mayor Taylor and then, secondly, approved by council.
He stated that, under the Home Rule Charter which governs the city, Taylor is not authorized to introduce legislation.  The only exceptions, he noted, are limited to the introduction of the city budget and capital projects on an annual basis.
“The mayor does not have legal standing to introduce legislation,” Farrell offered.  “I know there is past precedent, because it’s been done here since the 1970s, but past precedent doesn’t supersede law.”
“Law is law,” he stated flatly.
Farrell identified another problem with the passage of the legislation as being a revision to the fee which was made in between the time of its first reading in December and the second reading in January when it was voted on by council.
At the first reading in December, the fee was introduced as $75 per parcel.  However, in January, the amount was revised to $50 per parcel.  He said this constituted a “substantial change” which by law requires the process to essentially begin anew.
City solicitor Atty. Frank Ruggiero responded that he felt the revision was “not a material change,” primarily because the amount was being lowered. 
Farrell, however, argued that such a revision — whether it was an increase or decrease — still constitutes a substantial change because the difference in the fee amount was going be the same, a 33 percent revision one way or the other.
“It should have been re-read in January and then voted on in February,” Farrell insisted.
By not doing so, he said “the law was improperly introduced, it was improperly enacted, and the fee is unenforceable.”
He noted that one of the lots he owns, which is assessed at $1,000, has gone from a tax bill of $28.97 to $78.97 with the institution of the fire service fee.  He said that represents a 176 percent increase, or an additional 50 mills.  Yet he pointed out that the courts won’t even allow a township or borough to adopt a fee in excess of three mills, so they certainly won’t uphold a 50-mill hike by a municipality.
He added that the lot is empty, so it doesn’t even pose a fire risk.
“It technically can’t burn, because there’s nothing on it to burn,” he related.
Altogether, Farrell said he will be paying about $300 more on the various parcels he owns in the city as a result of the fire fee.
He told the council members that they should repeal the fire fee, as well as fee for sewer service, and put them through as millage increases if they want to try to generate the revenues in a way which is consistent with the law.
Council president Kathleen Connor stated that the city is limited in how much it can raise taxes, and wouldn’t be able to assess the same amount through millage increases without getting court approval.  Therefore, she said, the fees were necessary.
“We have to run the city,” she offered.
Farrell countered that the law cannot be circumvented for that or any other purpose.
“Legally speaking, you can’t just make up any rules you choose to run the city,” he explained.
He noted that, at the very least, the fees should be repealed.
“Because they are going to court [otherwise],” he assured.
“You can’t just run it however you want to run it,” Farrell reiterated.  “It has to be legal.”
Atty. Ruggiero replied that the legal issues raised by Farrell would be researched and fully addressed by the city at council’s next regular meeting, scheduled for April 16.