The Mississippi Supreme Court handed down a fire service ruling last week in the case of Alfonso v. Diamondhead Fire Protection District.
Diamondhead FPD has imposed a monthly service fee on property owners going back 20 years. In 2009 several property owners filed suit to challenge the fee claiming it was an illegal tax. The plaintiffs also alleged the district was negligent in imposing the fees and committed extortion in the collection process.
The trial court determined the DFPD’s charge for fire-protection services was a permissible fee for services rendered, not a tax, and thus was legal under Mississippi law.
The Mississippi Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and rejected the distinction offered by the property owners – that the fee was really a tax because it was collected without regard to whether services were rendered. According to the property owners, a service fee could only be lawfully assessed for services actually rendered. Service fees assessed without regard to whether a service was actually provided would make it a tax.
The court dispensed with that distinction quite handily, pointing to the numerous services that the fire department provides to property owners in the community without actually responding to their property for an emergency, including: repairing and maintaining equipment; training and being available to respond; pre-incident planning; hydrant inspections; public safety education; etc.
“We find that the DFPD provides a valuable service by having fire and other emergency services available to respond to an emergency. Therefore, the fee assessed is permissible. The trial court’s judgment is affirmed.”
Here is a copy of the ruling: Alfonso v Diamondhead FPD
Incidentally, for the folks from RITF01 – this is the same Diamondhead community located in Hancock County, Mississippi that we worked in back in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina.