Unclaimed cash: Tens of thousands lose out on fire fee settlement checks
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Tens of thousands of Miamians didn't ask for a fire fee refund to which they were entitled.
Although 179,000 settlement notices were mailed to City of Miami property owners who were illegally charged a fire fee, only 59,000 applied for a piece of the settlement.
About 45,000 refund checks were mailed and another 2,000 are on the way, said Cody Bland, project manager for Epiq Systems, the fire fee settlement administrator.
About 25% of settlement notices sent to property owners came back undeliverable because some homeowners left the city without leaving an address change, said Scott Cole in an October interview. Mr. Cole is a partner of Cole, Scott & Kissane, a Miami-based law firm that has represented the city since 2005.
"Miami is a transient city," he said. "People move but don't leave forwarding addresses."
In late September, city commissioners approved spending an additional $46,400 to intensify efforts to notify fire fee payers, adding to the $370,000 already spent from the general fund.
To get the message out, Epiq launched a nationwide campaign to alert property owners who may have paid the fee.
Two advertisements were placed in USA Today, a nationally distributed daily newspaper.
Locally, the advertisements ran in several publications, including the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, the Daily Business Review and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
But many didn't reply to the call.
Discounting 44,750 undeliverable notices and those 59,000 who applied for the settlement, 75,000-plus eligible homeowners didn't ask for a refund check.
Of the settlement recipients, one-third no longer are Miami residents, Mr. Bland said — they've moved elsewhere in Miami-Dade County, to other parts of Florida or the nation or are residing abroad.
Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez approved the $17.1 million fire fee settlement in late October, but after class counsel fees and administrative costs were deducted, the common fund was reduced to $14 million, the City Attorney's Office informed city officials and administrators in a December e-mail.
In July, Judge Rodriguez denied the class counsel's request to get $7.7 million legal fees, which would have significantly reduced the money left for fire fee payers to share.
The court awarded the counsel $1.86 million at the final hearing, almost $6 million less than requested.
Miami's settlement stems from a fire fee authorized by the state legislature that the city began collecting in 1997.
Although the 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 agreed on in an earlier backroom discussion.
The refund pot was filled with $15.55 million the city agreed to pay from its general fund and $1.6 million contributed by Adorno & Yoss, the law firm that represented the lucky seven.