Attorneys threaten the County Commission with litigation if the matter is not dropped, citing case law and the County Code to support their stance
Attorneys representing the City of Sarasota say Sarasota County is violating its own ordinances and legal precedent by trying to levy assessments against 16 city-owned parcels, including three that comprise Mote Marine. If the issue cannot be resolved, the attorneys said this week, the city will have no choice but to file suit against the county.
“I can’t determine how these 16 pieces of property out of the hundreds that are owned by the city have been chosen,” Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly told the commissioners during a public comments portion of the county board’s Sept. 14 public hearing on the proposed 2016 fiscal year budget. Adoption of the budget is scheduled to follow a 5:30 p.m. public hearing on Sept. 22 in the County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.
Sixteen of the parcels are being assessed for fire-rescue purposes, he said. The city has received notice of two further assessments for parcels it owns; those are for garbage collection and stormwater fees.
John R. Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson, a Fort Lauderdale law firm hired by the city to assist with the matter, explained that “the basic rule [is] that one government can’t assess another government unless the legislation that creates these respective governments gives it that authority or that ability to do so.”
Herin added that if the County Commission adopted the relevant resolutions following the Sept. 14 public hearing, “we’re headed down the wrong road … and potentially court action … and we want to avoid that.”
In response, the county commissioners approved a motion asking County Administrator Tom Harmer and the Office of the County Attorney to work with the Office of the City Attorney to try to reach a resolution. Nonetheless, the commissioners unanimously approved all the relevant resolutions.
Connolly told The Sarasota News Leader on Sept. 15 that the issue arose first in November 2014 when the City of Sarasota Finance Department received bills for assessments on city property. After city staff objected, he added, county staff dropped the matter.
On the TRIM notices the city received this year, he continued, the largest assessment is for Mote Marine’s property, at a total of $26,700. The smallest amount is about $67.
The news about the assessments appeared to take county commissioners by surprise on Sept. 14, a point Commissioner Charles Hines alluded to at the conclusion of the public hearing. During the past several years, the legally required sessions have featured scripted recitations of the necessary resolutions and votes, with few or no public comments.
“[This is] almost political theater in the middle of a budget hearing, which is unfortunate,” County Commissioner Christine Robinson said on Sept. 14.
“We’re really not here for theater,” Herin replied, “with all due respect. This is our one opportunity to appear before you in a public setting according to statute and code to state our position.” If he and Connolly did not do that, Herin added, “Potentially, the county … may try to assert that we have waived our right.”
Delving into the law
During the hour-long session in Venice, Connolly pointed out that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office had certified that all of the 16 parcels the county proposes to assess are used for government purposes “and therefore exempt” from such action.
Nonetheless, Connolly continued, “For reasons I don’t yet know and understand, the Board of County Commissioners wants to levy a … special assessment … and the city strongly objects to the inclusion of the levy on the tax bill.”
Connolly cited Sections 110-260 through 110-263 of the Sarasota County Code in making his argument. He also pointed to county Resolution 2003-160, approved on July 8, 2003, as further support that government property “is not charged an assessment for fire-rescue services.”
Connolly added that the TRIM notices the city received indicate those 16 parcels “are not being used for governmental purposes; yet, the property appraiser perceives they are being used for governmental purposes.”
Herin explained that when a city acquires property, the property appraiser has to determine whether the new parcel is taxable. A specific form is filed to seek that ruling. All 16 of the pieces of property he and Connolly were referencing went through that process years ago, he added.
Noting that legal procedure calls for properties on which assessments and taxes remain unpaid are to be sold by the county Clerk of Court, Connolly asked the commissioners, “Are you going to try and sell Mote Marine on the clerk’s steps?”
He continued, “I love this one: You are levying a non ad valorem fire assessment on the city’s water tower. That’s on the Southgate Mall property. … I don’t really think steel catches fire too easily, but if it does, it has water under pressure below it.”
Among other properties on the assessment list are the site of the former G.WIZ science museum on the city bayfront and the home of the Sarasota Orchestra, according to the list, which Connolly provided to the News Leader.
At the conclusion of his Sept. 14 remarks, Connolly informed the county board that the city had retained GrayRobinson. Herin then appeared at the podium to point out that litigation would be necessary if the county refused to void the assessments. “Obviously,” Herin said, “on behalf of the city, we don’t want to do that.”
Herin added that GrayRobinson recently had litigated a similar matter for the City of Coral Springs. In that lawsuit, he continued, the firm relied on a Florida Supreme Court ruling in a case decided several years ago that involved the City of North Port.
The firm’s court appearance came just two days before the City of Coral Springs’ property was going to be put up for sale for non-payment of assessments, he pointed out. “So we’re here to work with you all to see if we can seek a solution with a full reservation of all the [City of Sarasota’s] rights …”
In the City of Sarasota’s situation, Herin continued, “These properties have all been on the tax roll for years. You’ve not assessed them … There’s really no explanation.”
Herin added, “We met with your staff earlier today … and, frankly, they were somewhat perplexed as to why some of the parcels were on the TRIM notices.”
County Commission response
Why were the county commissioners hearing about the matter at the public hearing, Robinson asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh.
The City Attorney’s Office was in contact with the county about the issue during the summer, DeMarsh replied. “I don’t know why we are hearing this today as opposed to earlier.”
DeMarsh suggested the county board go ahead and vote on the budget and special assessments and then direct his office and Harmer to work with the city’s representatives “to see if we can come to a resolution of any legal problems that do exist.”
The county commissioners proceeded to do so. Robinson also made a motion calling for city and county staff members to try to resolve the assessments dispute.
At the conclusion of the public hearing, Commissioner Charles Hines told DeMarsh, “What I would hope is, between now and [Sept. 22], we are fully informed and get the rest of the story,” preventing another situation during which the county commissioners would be “spoken to condescendingly by an attorney from the city ….”
“We will report back to you at the next hearing,” DeMarsh replied. “I don’t think that we’ll reach a resolution, but we will be working on it ….”