County budget workshops offer up wealth of facts and figures from constitutional officers, department directors

From foreclosure trends to library use data, County Commission learns all sorts of details

The Sarasota County commissioners prepare to take up budget issues again after a break during their June 19 workshop. File photo

Each year, when the Sarasota County Commission holds intensive workshops in June on its proposed budget for the next fiscal year, it hears presentations by the county’s constitutional officers as well as directors of county departments.

During the exchanges, lots of statistics typically are offered, reflecting the work of the offices of other elected officials — such as Karen Rushing, clerk of the courts and county comptroller, and Property Appraiser William Furst.

This year was no different, with news about the continued decline in mortgages since the height of the Great Recession, for example, and the efforts to ensure people who seek homestead exemptions are not trying to defraud the county.

The following is a breakdown of some of the latest facts and figures:

Clerk of Courts and County Comptroller

Image courtesy Office of the Clerk of the Courts and County Comptroller

On June 18, Rushing was the first constitutional officer to make her budget presentation to the commission.

In the Real Estate Services division of her office, Rushing told the board, staff in the 2018 fiscal year handled 17,755 new mortgages, 30,430 deeds, 14,762 satisfactions of mortgage and 300 tax liens.

Additionally, among other services, she noted, her staff issued 3,010 marriage licenses, performed 885 weddings, received 9,194 passport applications and conducted 331 sales of property at public action, to satisfy back taxes and fees.

Two other slides Rushing showed the commission underscored the changes from the height of the real estate boom through the recession to the present.

Office of the Clerk of the Courts and County Comptroller

In the 2005 fiscal year, the total amount of document stamps and intangible taxes her office handled was $140,992,125, she said. By the Sept. 30 end of this fiscal year, she added, the total is expected to be $66,356,535.

In 2009, Rushing continued, the number of foreclosure cases initiated in the Circuit Court in Sarasota County was 8,576. Last year, the figure was 701. As of mid-June, she noted, the total was 217.

“Foreclosures have dropped dramatically,” she pointed out. “We’re happy about that.”

Property Appraiser’s Office

Following Rushing on June 18, Property Appraiser Furst showed the commissioners a bar graph reflecting the value of new construction in the county from 2005 through this year.

The just market value was at its peak in 2007, he noted, when it hit the mark of $2.2 billion.

This graphic shows the value of new construction over the past fiscal years. Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

“As of January 2019,” he continued, “we put $1.4 billion on the [tax] roll. That’s [for projects] finished in 2018.”

Looking back at 2000, 2001 and 2002, Furst said, “We were always bumping about $1 billion.” Then, in 2006 and 2007, he added, “We doubled that. … Those years were anomalies. People could get financing very easily.”

With another slide, Furst showed the board that from October 2014 through May 2019, his staff had pursued investigations leading to property valued at $587,421,255 being added back to the tax rolls.

As a result of those efforts, he pointed out, a total of $13,953,838 in liens had been paid. Penalties added up to $3,190,828, the slide noted.

Image courtesy Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office

The vast majority of the investigations involved homestead fraud, he indicated.

In regard to another issue, Furst told the commission that whenever a taxpayer files a petition with the county’s Value Adjustment Board, seeking to contest the value assigned to the person’s property, his staff contacts the person and tries to schedule a meeting. As a result of those efforts, Furst said, his staff is able to settle about one-third of the cases prior to their coming before the Value Adjustment Board.

Further, Furst pointed to his employees’ efficiencies and accomplishments. In the state, he said, 59 counties have full-time staff members who review fewer parcels per person than his employees do.

He has 67 full-time employees, he noted, who average 4,633 parcels each.

At the low end of the scale, he said, some counties achieve a figure of only 1,400 parcels per full-time worker.

Tax Collector’s Office

As she generally does each year, Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates explained during her June 18 presentation that her office operates on the fees it charges for services. Any revenue left over at the end of a fiscal year, she emphasized, which would be called “profit” in the business world, is turned over to the county’s General Fund.

Last year, she said, her staff gave the county $10.9 million; this year, the estimate is more than $12.5 million.

The new Mid County Tax Collector’s Office on Sawyer Loop Road in Sarasota has been a very busy place, Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates says. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue. County staff consistently refers to it as the county’s most constrained account, as it has to cover expenses for county operations and departments for which no other sources of revenue are available.

On a daily average, Ford-Coates told the commissioners, her staff helps 1,400 customers in person, answers 680 phone calls and opens 850 pieces of mail.

Last year, she said, her staff handled more than 1 million transactions, collecting more than $1 billion.

Yet, she continued, “Our costs per capita continue to be significantly lower than all the other tax collectors on the west coast of Florida.” In fact, she said, her office’s costs per capita are the third lowest in the state.

“They constantly amaze me,” she added, referring to her employees’ creativity and dedication.

In fact, Ford-Coates pointed out, in April, her staff put a tremendous amount of effort into the statewide Donate Life Florida campaign. That initiative encourages people getting drivers’ licenses to register as organ donors, and it seeks voluntary contributions of funds that are used to educate the public about the need for organ, tissue and eye donors.

She just learned on June 17 that her staff had won first place in the state for its efforts in that campaign, Ford-Coates told the commissioners. Her employees were able to raise more than $20,000, she added, “which is more than twice as much as the next highest [amount for a tax collector’s office] in the state of Florida.”

Her staff members, she continued, “are just an amazing group of people.”

Libraries and Historical Resources

Sarabeth Kalajian. File photo

Among department leaders working under the County Commission’s authority, Sarabeth Kalajian, director of the Libraries and Historical Resources Department, also had statistics to share with the board.

From March 15, when an interlibrary loan system was implemented, through May 31, she said, her staff processed 375 requests of Sarasota County library patrons seeking materials from other systems.

Conversely, Kalajian continued, her staff received 392 requests for materials that patrons in other counties wanted to borrow. Referring to those figures, she added, “That’s [the balance] we were going for.”

Among other statistics, Kalajian noted the following:

  • Since the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2018, 9,590 people have received library cards; her staff typically registers 18,000 to 19,000 new patrons each year.
  • Program attendance is projected to be up 12.8% this year, with 82,938 people counted in the 2018 fiscal year.
  • 95% of customers surveyed rated their satisfaction with the libraries as good or excellent.
  • 81% of borrowed items leave the libraries via customer self-checkout stations.