Almost 400 residents, businesses owners and church representatives were on hand to speak against the proposal. No one from the audience spoke in favor of the assessment.
At the end of the marathon public hearing, the council voted 4 to 1 against the levy. Mayor Gaiul Ash, Council members Diane Travis, Ray Goodgame, and Tim Bates opposed the levy, each for different reasons. Councilman Keith Mullens voted for but with a modified version of the plan.
The assessment could have been levied under a state statute which allows governing bodies to charge the fees and add them to their general fund accounts. While the assessment is called a fire rescue fee and is based on service calls, frequency, exposure and other emergency factors, the money itself would not go for those purposes.
Instead it was to be used to offset a $1.2 million "deficit" because the city was projected to spend more than it would take in during the next fiscal year.
Finance Director Joe Van Ziles explained the city had limited choices. They could withdraw the money from their reserve account as they have for the last six years, raise the millage rate to cover the short fall, or use one of two fire rescue assessments that had been proposed.
The city pointed out that Clermont has one of the lowest millage rates and provides more services than almost every other municipality in the county. It has seen significant growth and an increase in personnel required to provide the services.
"State law requires us to balance the budget," explained City Manager Darren Gray. The assessment was proposed as one possible solution.
Former City Councilwoman Hope Lamb spoke first and last from the audience. "This is empowerment," she announced addressing the capacity crowd. She applauded their participation at the meeting.
Lamb also said as a business woman, she has to make tough economic choices. "It's time for the city to make tough choices."
The most common theme was that the assessment was still a tax. For businesses and churches, the prospect of the assessment was daunting.
Attorney Dennis Horten rents office space and said the impact would negatively affect his business. He said the fees would force him to raise rents at a time when getting tenants was already difficult and many landlords were lowering rents to attract people.
"You have a fourth choice," he told the council, "cut spending."
Greg Homan, owner of the Citrus Tower, said the city was spending like drunken sailors. He pointed out the city's Community Center rents so cheaply it "ran me out of the business," referring to his hall rentals.
Tandy Hammond of Buses n' Backpacks said the fees would take directly away from their charitable efforts, a theme repeated by others. Several pastors said that unlike businesses, they can't raise rates or prices to make up the difference.
Brian Hammond told the council, "Every dollar we have to give you comes out of the mouth of someone who needs it."
Former Mayor Hal Turville chastised the council telling them the reserve fund isn't a piggy bank. It's from taxes collected and that the money should be used to pay the deficit since the people have already paid it.
"Leave us alone, sharpen your pencils," he demanded. "Vote it down."
In the end, Tim Bates voted "no," pointing out he had always opposed the idea. Ray Goodgame had supported the idea in the past with the condition that churches be exempt, but as the plan unfolded decided against it.
Diane Travis said the plan bothered her and added that critics of the council's spending be reminded that neither she nor Mayor Gail Ash were on the council when the spending decisions were made.
Ash also disapproved of the plan but added that the city had to discuss it before they could make the final decision.
Mullens, who cast the opposing vote, said that the need still existed and that he favored some type of hybrid which would include cuts, a millage increase and a fee. He noted that the city faced similar issues when growth forced Clermont to raise its millage before the state mandated all cities lower their rates.
"They made us lower our rates and then raised theirs," he recalled.
Clermont has grown 207 percent since 2000 with a population of 32,667 and development underway for another 2,000.
The city will now explore other options to balance the budget.