Class-action suit against Lake County over taxes gains traction

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LAKE COUNTY, Fla. - More than 60,000 Lake County property owners could end up in a huge class action lawsuit against the county in connection with taxes collected to fund the county fire department.

The county collects tax money to run fire stations like Station 82 near Leesburg, but they're accused of improperly spending the cash, Channel 9's Berndt Petersen has learned.

"The taxpayers' money is just being thrown away, because somebody didn't spend enough time to prevent this type of fiasco from happening," said Vance Jochim of the Lake County Fiscal Rangers.

The class action lawsuit claims the county illegally taxed homeowners to pay for emergency rescue care. Each year, property owners in the unincorporated parts of the county pay a special assessment for fire service, this year it is $181.

The assessment covers the cost to run the fire department, but the suit alleges some of that money was used to pay for advanced life support services for more expensive, life-or-death care, from 2005 to 2008. The state  Supreme Court has ruled that's not a proper use of the money.

Jochim said if the 60,000 taxpayers win, each could end up with about $50. The suit, however, could cost the county $12 million to defend.

Mediation between the two sides failed over the summer, and the case could go to trial next spring.