City spends another $46,400 to reach beneficiaries of fire fee settlement scandal, case could close in about two weeks
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
In an effort to reach as many homeowners as possible who were cheated by the city's fire fee settlement scandal, the city is spending more money to find them.
The clock is ticking for homeowners looking for a slice of the pie as the settlement case could come to a close in about two weeks.
Of the close to 179,000 settlement notices that were mailed out, about 25% came back undeliverable because some homeowners left the city without leaving an address change, said Scott Cole, partner of Cole, Scott & Kissane, a Miami-based law firm that has represented the city since 2005.
"Miami is a transit city," he said. "People move but don't leave forwarding addresses."
City commissioners approved $46,400 more last week, adding to the $370,000 from general fund monies already spent, to cover the costs of notifying homeowners.
The money is going to settlement administrator Epiq Systems Inc. in charge of notifying property owners who qualify for the $17.1 million refund.
The new funds will pay for a last attempt to find the missing fire-fee payers, Mr. Cole said.
The goal is getting "as many people as much money back as quickly as possible," he said.
Deadline to turn in request-for-refund forms as part of the class action lawsuit is Oct. 21.
Miami's fire fee settlement stems from a fire fee authorized by the state legislature that the city began collecting in 1997.
Although the fire fee was legal, the fire rescue portion the city was charging was found to be illegal because a property cannot use fire rescue services.
But for many, distrust of the city's government boiled over in 2004, when taxpayers felt cheated after the city commission approved a payment of $7 million to seven people — later nicknamed the lucky seven — after a less-than-a-minute discussion.
It gave some the notion that the payment was shook-on in an earlier backroom discussion.
The refund pot is filled with $15.55 million the city has agreed to pay from its general fund and $1.6 million contributed by Adorno & Yoss, the law firm that represented the lucky-seven.
Then, residents nearly got the short end again.
In July, Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez heard the plaintiff team's petition to charge $7.7 million in legal fees, but he denied the request that would have left fire-fee payers with only $9.4 million to share.
City Attorney Julie Bru said the court awarded plaintiff lawyers an amount substantially less. The evidence presented at the legal fees hearing did not convince the court, she said.
The court is to award the plaintiff counsel $1.86 million at the final hearing, almost $6 million less than requested.
The notification period was extended after Epiq Systems incorrectly mailed out the settlement applications in envelopes labeled "Bankruptcy Documents Enclosed."
After sending the wrong notices, the 1-800 contact number was equipped with live operators in English, Spanish and Creole to assist confused and concerned callers with their questions.
Mr. Cole said the firm ate the cost of its mistake, which also prompted a second round of mailings, this time with the correct packet properly marked "Fire Fee Settlement Notice."
After many headaches, all that's left is Judge Rodriguez's final hearing on the settlement, "which we anticipate he will approve," Mr. Cole said.
If the settlement is approved, Epiq Systems has 120 days to issue refund checks after the Oct. 21 deadline to submit refund forms. Check distribution could begin by December.