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Council to church: See you in court

April 24, 2012
FL Guide

Though neither side really wanted it to get to this point, the city of Cape Coral and a local church seem ready to take their issue of whether the church has to pay more than $354,000 in assessments for a piece of land it sold in 2008 to court.

But one council member wondered if the city had a leg to stand on because of a possible complication when the ordinance was first crafted.

The council voted 5-3 to authorize a suit against Daybreak Baptist Fellowship for payment of assessments on 13.5 acres of property formerly owned by the church at 2227 Trafalgar Parkway, but sold to the Lee County school system in January 2008.

The church claims the first bill of assessment wasn't sent until that November, 10 months later.

The city claims the church was notified of the rules for sales to public entities, which said assessments would be due from Daybreak at time of sale and that it was notified of the assessments.

There seemed to be hope for a settlement last week when both sides met Tuesday and Thursday, but things broke down quickly when it became evident no deal was imminent.

Daybreak's attorney, Steve Hartsell, said the city wasn't in the mood to negotiate.

"They have no basis on which they're suing. We were negotiating against ourselves," Hartsell said, "It's frustrating to give them three minutes to make a presentation then tell you they don't want to be in this situation."

Hartsell spoke during public input and said a lawsuit was never an option for Daybreak, adding the city sent the first bill to the school board and, therefore, the church had no obligation to pay.

"I'm not asking you put an end to this because we're a church, but because there's no basis for a suit," Hartsell said. "Don't use the church as a test case."

Councilmember Rana Erbrick made the motion to authorize the suit, but not without reservations.

"This is not where I want to be. My father was a preacher," Erbrick said. "This has to move forward. Otherwise the ratepayers will have to suck it up."

Options to continue the case, including extending the polling agreement, which had been done twice, were shot down.

"I've closed the door on my side. I'm asking to show if you can win and you're asking to show if we can win and you can't," Councilmember Marty McClain said. "A higher power can settle this. I'm supporting it, and we'll see how it turns out.

However, Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz wondered if the city could win the case after he did a little digging and said the city administration made a policy change to not record a 2007 ordinance, thus not allowing residents proper notice.

"We weren't able to get the information available. Thousands of property owners weren't able to research it," Leetz said. "They did due diligence, but had no idea of what went on until late 2008. We failed the city and businesses. We have no level foot to stand on."

Leetz also wondered if council really cared about the ratepayers.

"If the ratepayers are such a concern, why did we spend $13 million to buy 600 acres of land that we don't know we need?" Leetz asked.

In the end, the consent item had just enough steam to pass, with Leetz, Mayor John Sullivan and Councilmember Lenny Nesta voting no.

Councilmember Kevin McGrail was sad it came down to this, but knew the writing was on the wall when Pastor Randy Miller was a no show.

"This has moved beyond reasonable people. It's now in the realm of the courts," McGrail said. "The council tried to work with them, but they wanted to try the case from the dais. We were painted into a corner."

 
 

 

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