City and county staff to meet Oct. 19 on county’s attempt to assess fire-rescue fees on city property

14 parcels remain the focus of a dispute that had its first public airing during the County Commission’s Sept. 14 budget hearing

The site of the former G.WIZ museum no longer will be assessed. News Leader archive photo
The site of the former G.WIZ museum no longer will be assessed. News Leader archive photo

Deputy Sarasota City Attorney Michael Connolly and Sarasota County staff are expected to meet on Monday, Oct. 19, to discuss the county’s efforts to assess fire and rescue fees on 14 city-owned parcels, Connolly told The Sarasota News Leader this week.

Connolly plans to update the City Commission on the matter during the board’s regular session that afternoon, he added. That City Commission meeting will begin at 2:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall in downtown Sarasota.

In the meantime, John Herin Jr. of the GrayRobinson law firm in Fort Lauderdale, which is assisting the city, told the News Leader in an Oct. 15 telephone interview that he was evaluating a letter he received by email from the county the previous day. That letter was a response to justifications he provided in writing to the county on Sept. 28 regarding why the county has no right to impose the assessments.

Herin and Connolly both addressed the County Commission about their concerns during the county board’s first public hearing on its 2016 fiscal year budget, which was held Sept. 14 in Venice.

Regarding the Oct. 14 letter from County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, Herin told the News Leader, “Our very preliminary answer is that the county’s response is incomplete at best.”

John Herin Jr. addresses the County Commission on Sept. 14. News Leader photo
John Herin Jr. addresses the County Commission on Sept. 14. News Leader photo

Asked to elaborate, Herin said, “We made a number of arguments, and the county did not respond to all of them.” In fact, Herin added, it appears county staff has chosen to ignore some of them. “I don’t know why. … They are of the opinion that what they are doing is allowed under the law, and there’s still disagreement” on that, he pointed out.

Among the city-owned parcels on which the county seeks the fire-rescue assessments are the Mote Marine complex as well as the former bayfront site of the G.WIZ science museum. Four others are occupied by vacant residential homes on which the city had foreclosed, City Finance Director John Lege explained in a Sept. 23 letter to Richard Collins, director of Sarasota County Emergency Services. The city obtained the titles to those parcels, Lege pointed out, “so as to help remove blight upon the neighborhood. … When adjoining neighbors are not interested in purchasing the property, it is then offered to non-profit entities who operate in Sarasota County and who provide low income owner-occupied housing.”

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo
County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

DeMarsh wrote in the Oct. 14 letter that “it is undisputed that City-owned properties receive the same fire and rescue services that are available to other properties located within the Sarasota County Fire and Rescue Assessment District and are charged the same assessment rate. In fact,” he continued, “providing the same service and being assessed the same rate as properties outside of the City was a condition to the consolidation of City and County fire services.”

DeMarsh further noted that property the city owns or leases exclusively for city use will not be assessed. Therefore, the county will not assess the Verna well field, the city water tower and the G.WIZ sites.

The fee for the G.WIZ property, according to the TRIM notice the city received from the county, was $8,266.38.

In his Sept. 23 letter to Collins, Lege pointed out that G.WIZ “defaulted under its lease agreement with the City,” so the lease was terminated effective Feb. 28, 2014. Lege added that while the city had not found a replacement tenant, the site “has been incorporated into the current public discussions commonly referred to as the Sarasota Bayfront 20/20.” The Bayfront 20:20 website references a vision for a long-term master plan to “establish a cultural and economic legacy for the region while ensuring open, public access to the bayfront.”

DeMarsh explained in his Oct. 14 letter that if the city does not end up using the G.WIZ property or chooses to market it to a private entity, “the non ad valorem assessment will be reinstated on the property in future years.”

In a Sept. 28 letter to Collins, Lege noted city staff’s objections to nine other parcels slated for assessment. Among them are the three pieces of property that make up Mote Marine on Ken Thompson Parkway; a parcel leased to the Sarasota Garden Club (1131 Sixth St.); property leased to the nonprofit rescue organization Save Our Seabirds (1708 Ken Thompson Parkway); the site of Art Center Sarasota (707 N. Tamiami Trail); and the property leased to the Florida West Coast Symphony, which operates as the Sarasota Orchestra (709 N. Tamiami Trail).

Lege pointed out, “Each of the [nine] parcels of property has been determined by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser to be exempt from ad valorem taxation. … Consequently, Sarasota County’s attempt to levy the non-ad valorem fire and rescue special assessment is unlawful.”

Legal arguments

In a Sept. 28 letter to DeMarsh, Herin of GrayRobinson wrote, “[T]he County apparently believes that it can impose the Assessment on the City properties in question, notwithstanding the fact that the properties are exempt from taxation, by distinguishing ‘government property’ from ‘government use.’”

Herin cited the county’s Assessment Methodology Report for the Sarasota County Fire Rescue District, dated July 8, 2003, in which the county “intentionally excluded all governmental properties from the calculation of the putative special benefit conferred by the provision of countywide fire services” and the apportionment of the special assessment against those properties. Herin added that that report identified the city properties “(and all other governmentally owned property) as ‘governmental properties’ (not ‘governmental use’).”

A City of Sarasota list shows all the pieces of property on which Sarasota County originally proposed to levy assessments. Image courtesy City Attorney's Office
A City of Sarasota list shows all the pieces of property on which Sarasota County originally proposed to levy assessments. Image courtesy City Attorney’s Office

Additionally, Herin continued, “[T]he Florida Supreme Court has stated the type of semantic game the County is engaging in does not hold up to judicial scrutiny.”

In his Oct. 14 letter, DeMarsh did concur with Herin’s assertion that a lien against city property for non-payment of assessments could not be foreclosed. Therefore, DeMarsh added, the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office “has been instructed to remove the City-owned properties from the 2015 tax bill.”

“Instead,” DeMarsh continued, “following [County Commission] authorization, City-owned properties that are not currently used by or intended to be used by the City will be billed for their proportionate share of fire assessments” through an alternative method set forth in the County Code.