With the prospect of having its lawsuit with Daybreak Fellowship Church thrown out, city council is now forced to sue the Lee County School System as well to recoup the money it lost in a controversial assessment battle that has raged for years.
The city council voted 5-3 to sue the school system in hopes it gets some $354,000 in assessments the city says the church owes for land it sold to the school system in 2008.
Mayor John Sullivan and council members Chris Chulakes-Leetz and Lenny Nesta voted against the measure, as they voted against the lawsuit when it was first brought up in April.
A judge ruled Monday that because the school system currently owns that parcel that the entity need to be included in the litigation or have the case dismissed, said City Attorney Dolores Menendez.
"The judge is basically saying the current land owner must be included in the suit," said Councilmember Kevin McGrail, who added that once the judge gets the information from the school system, he or she will likely dismiss the district as a party, leaving only the church.
The judge wants to know how the land was conveyed to the district and what the school system's use of the property was, like what a normal landowner would be asked, McGrail said.
The church bought two 13.5-acre parcels on Trafalgar Parkway in 2001.
Six years later, the city passed a resolution allowing tax-exempt entities which included Daybreak.
In 2008, the church sold the parcel on 2227 Trafalgar to the Lee County School District.
Daybreak has argued that when a property is sold, the assessments transfered to the new owner. However, because the Lee County School District is a public entity, it is also assessment-exempt.
Daybreak also argues that it was not until 10 months after the sale that the city notified the church it was responsible for the $354,000 in assessments on the property.
The city argues that they notified Daybreak in June 2007 they were subject to certain assessments on the property. They also say, according to special rules, that when a property is sold to a public entity, the previous property owner must pay the assessments.
That's why McGrail thinks Daybreak is no different from a landowner "flipping" property.
"Churches, because of their impact, fewer sinks and toilets, but large land area were given breaks by prior councils with the expectation as a church, that's why they got the break," McGrail said. "When they sold that land, that's why the city said you're no different than a developer that sells a parcel of property."