published: Friday, October 12, 2012
Judge grants class action status to suit over fire fees
Greg Jones | Staff Writer
A Leesburg law firm has brought a class action lawsuit against Lake County, contending that as many as 70,000 unincorporated residents were improperly charged special assessments for fire services.
Attorneys Phillip Smith and Matthew Black of McLin & Burnsed say from 2005 to 2008, residents paid about $185 per year for fire services but about 25 percent of that money went for emergency medical services. The attorneys contend this was illegal and they want the EMS share -- estimated at between $10 million and $12 million -- returned.
Lake County officials deny the allegation and refuse to comment on the case.
McLin & Burnsed represents property owners Carl H. Martin, Joyce C. Martin, Dina Martin and James H. Herlong Jr. in the case, but a judge has ruled the action can be expanded to a class consisting of record title holders of real property throughout unincorporated Lake. Smith put this number at about 70,000 property owners.
Smith said his clients were tipped off by residents, who are government watchdogs, more than three years ago. They revealed that a special tax assessment was being improperly allocated. The plaintiffs sued three years ago and the court last December entered an Order Granting Class Certification.
The court ordered the parties to mediate the matter and a meeting was held last June, but no settlement was reached. The discovery and trial phases are next.
"I think if there were a discovery that the county was doing something improperly, that those individuals involved should be held accountable because that is why this lawsuit was bought (forth)," Smith said.
As for the estimate of damages, Smith said that number could change because the firm is still reviewing county records.
Plaintiff Carl H. Martin was contacted for comment but he said he'd rather have the law firm talk about the suit.
Anyone wishing to opt out of the class action may do so by contacting the law firm and returning a "Request for Exclusion" form by year's end.