Property tax inequity a major concern, town manager tells the Sarasota County Commission
When somebody drew an arbitrary line in 1921 to carve off Sarasota County from Manatee County, not much was at stake, given the fact that the newly divided Longboat Key was mostly unpopulated, Longboat Town Manager Dave Bullock told the Sarasota County Commission on Nov. 1.
Close to a century later, he pointed out, residents are contending with the unfair property tax situation that has evolved. Bullock provided numbers to illustrate the larger financial burden borne by Longboat residents on the Manatee side. “We think that the tax inequity issue is the fundamental issue here.”
That was why he was making the town’s first formal pitch, so to speak, in an initiative that could lead to Longboat’s boundaries being redrawn so all of it is within one county, he told the Sarasota County Commission.
The discussion was on the agenda for the Nov. 1 joint meeting of the county and town boards.
Longboat has been incorporated since 1955, Bullock said, and it has been providing more and more services to its residents. The overall property value of the town is “$5 billion and growing,” he added, thanks to the fact that Longboat has grown into an affluent community with a considerable influx of seasonal residents.
For the 2018 fiscal year, which began on Oct. 1, Bullock pointed out, the total amount of ad valorem taxes Longboat residents will pay to Manatee County Government taxing authorities, the Manatee County School Board and that county’s hospital will be $22,831,726. The equivalent figure for Sarasota County will be $47,824,015 — more than $70 million.
Although the tax rate for the Sarasota County School District is higher, he noted — a result of state law governing what the district millage rate must be — the total Manatee County Government millage rate is 6.5605, compared to Sarasota County’s 3.3912. Sarasota County uses more assessments to help fund operations, he said.
Moreover, Bullock continued, the town does not get an equivalent level of service from both counties. “Sarasota County invests more in Longboat Key than Manatee County does.”
For example, he said, the town receives funds from the county’s Tourist Development Tax — the so-called “bed tax” — for beach maintenance; that helps with the cost of garbage collection at the island’s beaches. The county also recently invested $2 million in improvements at Longboat’s Bayfront Park. (See the related story in this issue.)
County Commissioner Nancy Detert — a long-time Florida legislator before her election to the board last year — asked Bullock, “What is Step No. 1? Do you go to referendum?”
The first step, he replied, has been compiling the necessary financial analysis, which he believes the town leaders have accomplished. “Next is to engage residents in a discussion. … Our residents are not afraid to tell us what they think.”
A non-binding referendum would give the Town Commission a clear picture of residents’ viewpoints on the issue, Bullock added.
“This is the first place that we have talked about it outside of the island,” Bullock said. In February, he continued, the Town Commission will broach the issue with the Manatee County Commission.
Detert indicated that, as a legislator, she would be most interested at the outset to know how the majority of the residents felt. “These are pretty thorny, hard-to-solve problems,” she added, referring to communities split between two counties.
Finance and practical realities
In continuing his presentation, Bullock pointed out, “We really don’t get any more services … from one county than the other.”
“This is no one’s fault,” he added. “This is an after-effect of drawing a line in 1921 and then a city incorporating … and growing as the primary urban service provider.”
Emphasizing “this is the beginning of a discussion,” Bullock did note that if all of Longboat Key residents were in Sarasota County, the county would receive an extra $5,450,143 in ad valorem tax revenue.
No one mentioned the coincidence that $5.4 million is the minimum amount the Sarasota County Commission has asked staff to identify to plug a budget hole for this fiscal year, because the board declined to implement a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities that would have started in April. County commissioners have made it clear that they do not want to have to take that money from their “rainy day” reserve fund, even though that was part of the vote they took just to get their FY18 budget adopted in September.
If the town is allowed to move its boundaries so all of it can be within one county, Bullock said, the Town Commission would like to forge an interlocal agreement with that county that would call for the county to assist the town with infrastructure projects. “I just wanted to plant that fertile seed,” he added.
“It would take a legislative act in order to change county boundaries,” he acknowledged. “We think we have a compelling case.”
The two counties also would have to hold discussions leading to an interlocal agreement regarding the shift, he added.
Mayor Terry Gans told the County Commission that he could not “emphasize strongly enough that the Town Commission is in the very early stages of this undertaking.
Not only is tax inequity an issue, Gans pointed out, but the town also must contend with two different supervisors of elections, for example. For another: As Hurricane Irma approached Florida, he noted, “We had to have representatives at two different [Emergency Operations Centers].”
“We have to make a case for ourselves, [demonstrating] what’s the correct path for the good of Longboat Key,” Gans said. “I don’t know if this is a one-year, two-year, three-year, five-year effort.”
“The compelling argument is a practical one,” Commissioner Detert responded.