City Commission to file suit against county over fire-rescue assessments

Deputy city attorney explains concerns about precedents that could be set without the action

Deputy City Attorney Mike Connolly. News Leader photo
Deputy City Attorney Mike Connolly. News Leader photo

Faced with filing a lawsuit against Sarasota County by Nov. 3 or the prospect of paying more than $40,000 in fire-rescue assessments its attorneys say the city does not owe, the Sarasota City Commission this week voted unanimously to proceed with legal action.

The vote followed a presentation Deputy City Attorney Mike Connolly made during the board’s Oct. 19 regular meeting.

Connolly warned that if the City Commission did not challenge the county’s assessments this year on 13 city-owned parcels, the city might be looking at more assessments in the future — and even ad valorem tax bills — along with the payments the county says are due this year.

For example, the three parcels that comprise Mote Marine are on the fire-rescue assessment list, Connolly pointed out. The 2015 value of that property is $37.8 million, according to the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office, he added. (The city leases the parcels to Mote for $1 per year.) His best estimate for an ad valorem tax bill on the property is about $500,000, he said. “So this is a significant issue.”

Noting that county staff is focused on a distinction between “government property” and “government use” in this matter, Connolly added, “I cannot figure out who is making that decision and what criteria he or she is using to make that decision.”

What he has been able to learn from county staff, he continued, is that the Property Appraiser’s Office assigns certain codes to government-owned parcels, and those codes “[kick] something out of the computer system.”

He concurred with City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie about one legal defense for the city: the fact the county did not assess any city-owned parcels for 11 years after the City of Sarasota Fire Department was merged into the county Fire Department.

“You’ve hit the nail on the head,” Connolly told Eddie, who is also an attorney, after she questioned him on that point following his Oct. 19 presentation.

John Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson. Image courtesy of Herin
John Herin Jr. Image courtesy of Herin

Because of their expertise in case law pertaining to assessments of government property, Connolly said, he has been working with two attorneys at the GrayRobinson firm in Fort Lauderdale to handle the issue. “If we are going to pursue this,” he added, “I don’t want to have to pay for the city to recreate the wheel. The gentlemen [with GrayRobinson] have created this wheel,” he said, noting they won a case earlier this year involving an effort by the City of Coral Springs to assess property owned by the North Broward Hospital District.

However, by state statute, GrayRobinson’s legal fees cannot be recovered even if the city wins its case, Connolly told the board.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for the information, the city’s senior communications manager, Jan Thornburg, reported that the city this week received its first bill from GrayRobinson for work on the assessments matter. The total was $22,43.18, she wrote the News Leader in an Oct. 21 email.

The background

Sarasota County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh addresses the board during a workshop in 2013. Photo from the News Leader archive
Sarasota County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh addresses the board during a workshop in 2013. Photo from the News Leader archive

During his Oct. 19 presentation, Connolly explained that the city and county fire departments were consolidated in the mid-1990s. On July 8, 2003, he continued, the County Commission adopted a resolution regarding fire-rescue assessments.

In a Sept. 28 letter to the County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh, John Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson, writing on behalf of the city, cited a 2003 Assessment Methodology Report for the Sarasota County Fire Rescue District, 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’).”

Then, in November 2014, Connolly continued, the city received notice from the county for the first time that the city was being assessed fire-rescue fees on 24 parcels. After city Finance Director John Lege contacted county staff and objected, the county responded on Dec. 1, 2014 that it had made an error. On Dec. 10, 2014, he said, the county removed 22 of the 24 parcels from its list for levies; the following two were removed on Dec. 29, 2014. However, Connolly added, county staff noted at the time that it was possible the city might be assessed fire-rescue fees in 2015.

On April 30 of this year, Connolly continued, Lege confirmed that no payments for assessments were expected from the city. However, the Office of the County Attorney informed Lege that eight parcels it had determined were not being used for city purposes would be assessed this year. Among them were the Bobby Jones Golf Course and the Humane Society of Sarasota County facility on 15th Street. On Aug. 19, the city received Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices for fire-rescue assessments for 16 pieces of property, Connolly added. After Connolly and Herin appeared before the County Commission during its first public hearing on its 2016 fiscal year budget, held Sept. 14, to lodge protests, county staff removed the city’s water tower and its Verna well field from the assessments list.

An Oct. 14 letter from County Attorney DeMarsh confirmed that the site of the former G.WIZ science museum also was being removed, Connolly added.

Therefore, 13 parcels remain, he said. Ten of those are leased to nonprofit entities.

He has two major concerns, Connolly told the city commissioners. First, if the city board admits that any of the parcels are not being used for government purposes, that also could open the door for the county to issue ad valorem tax bills on those pieces of property. Second, he said, if the city pays the fire-rescue assessments this year, “how many [will we get] next year? I really don’t know what to expect.”

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on the bayfront or the Senior Friendship Center near downtown could be on a future list, Connolly told the board.

The other parcels on the fire-rescue assessment list that the city leases for $1 per year and their 2015 ad valorem tax value are as follows, Connolly pointed out:

  • J.H. Floyd Sunshine Village (an assisted living facility on 18th Street): $6 million.
  • Sarasota Orchestra: $5.3 million.
  • Sarasota Garden Club: $4.1 million.
  • Save Our Seabirds: $1.8 million.
  • Art Center Sarasota: $1.6 million.
  • U.S. Masters Swimming: $800,000.

Connolly reported that he and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown met with county staff at 1 p.m. that day. The sessions they have had with county staff “have not been successful,” Connolly added. “We agree to disagree.”

Art Center Sarasota is located on North Tamiami Trail. Image from its website
Art Center Sarasota is located on North Tamiami Trail. Image from its Facebook page

Brown also noted that county staff tried to make a distinction between government property and government use. County staff members say some of the city properties the county is assessing for fire-rescue fees are not being used for government purposes, Brown told the board.

The Humane Society site has not been assessed, for example, he continued. “Yet, they are assessing that fire levy to the fish and the dolphins and the birds, in terms of Save Our Seabirds, and Mote Marine. … It just doesn’t make any sense.”

The proverbial ticking clock

On Sept. 22, Connolly pointed out, the County Commission approved its FY 2016 budget and assessments, “which, in essence, laid down the gauntlet to us.”

The county board did agree to give the city an extension of the period during which it could file suit over the assessments, Connolly added. That date is Nov. 3. Therefore, he recommended the City Commission authorize GrayRobinson to file the lawsuit by the end of this month.

When City Commissioner Susan Chapman asked whether the county is levying fire-rescue assessments on parcels in any of the other municipalities, Connolly reminded her that Venice and North Port have their own fire departments. When Brown asked county staff whether the county was levying an assessment on any county property, Connolly added, “They said the Boys & Girls Club.”

“Which one?” Mayor Willie Shaw asked.

“I don’t know,” Connolly replied.

In response to The Sarasota News Leader’s question about that, county spokesman Jason Bartolone wrote in an Oct. 22 email that the county property is on Tuttle Avenue. A News Leader online search for the addresses of Boys & Girls Clubs found the Lee Wetherington Club at 3100 Fruitville Road, near the intersection of Ringling Boulevard and Tuttle Avenue.

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group
City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group

When City Commissioner Liz Alpert asked whether the County Commission had offered any comments on the assessments, Connolly responded that after his remarks during the Sept. 14 budget hearing, he was accused of “‘political theater,’ [and] that was [by] a condescending attorney.”

(“[This is] almost political theater in the middle of a budget hearing, which is unfortunate,” County Commissioner Christine Robinson said after Connolly and Herin made their Sept. 14 remarks.)

Connolly told the city commissioners on Oct. 19, “I gather from that that at least some of the commissioners are in full support of what [county staff members] are doing.”

When Shaw asked how the city commissioners wanted to proceed, Alpert replied that she felt Connolly “is giving us no other choice.”

Still, Alpert said, it is unfortunate that the city and county boards are planning their first joint meeting since June 2014 — to discuss a shelter for the county’s homeless — and “that we are constantly being accused of not being able to get along with the county commission, and now this adds fuel to this fire.”

(See the related story in this issue.)

“Welcome to the City Commission,” Shaw told her.

Shaw passed the gavel to Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell and made the motion to direct Connolly and his staff to proceed with the lawsuit challenging the assessments. Alpert seconded the motion.

“I just think it’s time that we started doing some of the things we should have been doing,” Shaw said.

“I don’t think we have a choice because we have to protect the citizens of the city from this potential huge liability that we would incur,” Alpert added.

Eddie told her colleagues she wants the lawsuit to resolve the ambiguity over what constitutes government use of property. If it does not, she added, “We’re still going to be guessing at the end of the process.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Oct. 27 to include a more accurate figure for the expense of the fire-rescue assessments.