Parking at the Terrace Building, potentially record-breaking voter turnout and homestead tax fraud among constitutional officers’ focus

County Commission gets updates as part of its 2017 fiscal year budget discussions

Signs at the Terrace Building late last summer directed customers around the construction. File photo
Signs at the Terrace Building late last summer directed customers around the construction. File photo

Ongoing parking worries for the Tax Collector’s Office, the potential for the county’s biggest voter turnout ever in November and new revenue resulting from investigations of fraudulent homestead exemptions are among issues on which Sarasota County’s constitutional officers have updated the County Commission while presenting their budgets for the next fiscal year.

As Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates anticipates the opening of a new mid-county facility at 6100 Sawyer Loop Road in the 2018 fiscal year, she has yet to resolve parking concerns at the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota, she said during her June 22 appearance before the county board.

Ford-Coates did note that, thanks to Property Appraiser Bill Furst — who gave up some of his office’s square footage — the expansion and renovation of her facilities in the Terrace Building was completed in January to accommodate an increase in customer traffic as a result of the state mandate that all tax collectors take over driver’s license transactions in mid-2015.

Her staff began that work in May 2015, Ford-Coates pointed out. Since then, the Tax Collector’s Office has served 90,000 driver’s license customers at all its locations, she continued, and it has conducted 6,700 road tests at the Pompano Avenue facility used formerly by the state. As a result, she told the board, her office’s revenue related to driver’s licenses has increased $340,000, a 77-percent uptick.

Nonetheless, Ford-Coates said, “I still have the ongoing concern about adequate parking at [the Terrace Building].” When the new mid-county facility opens, she added, she expects even more driver’s license customers at the downtown Sarasota office, because the Pompano facility will close. She is still talking with City of Sarasota and county staff to try to resolve the issue, she added, “but a workable solution has yet to be found.”

County staff provided this rendering of the new Mid-County Tax Collector's Office, which is expected to open next year. Image courtesy Sarasota County
County staff provided this rendering of the new Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office, which is expected to open next year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

(A presentation the next day by Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer, showed the mid-county facility will have approximately 10,550 square feet when it opens. Design and permitting for it is expected to be completed this summer, Brownman noted.)

And while a lot of work has been necessitated by the state’s requirement that tax collectors handle all driver’s license business, Ford-Coates pointed out on June 22, that “certainly has provided easier access for the public and definitely is more efficient.”

Her budget is funded entirely by revenue from fees and services, Ford-Coates reminded the commissioners. Last year, her office was able to return about $8.7 million to the county in excess revenue over expenses — what the private sector calls “profit,” she added. This year, the figure should be approximately $8.8 million, she said.

Her FY17 budget is up only 3 percent from the FY16 figure, she pointed out. “My exceptional staff works hard on providing exceptional service in the most effective and efficient way possible.”

Supervisor of Elections

Kathy Dent. News Leader photo
Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent. News Leader photo

Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent told the commissioners on June 22 that her presentation was her 16th and final one. For FY17, she continued, her budget is 1.5 percent lower than it was in FY16, with only one election scheduled for the new fiscal year — the general election in November. “But it is probably going to be the biggest election in my lifetime.”

Dent added, “We’re expecting about 85 percent voter turnout in Sarasota County,” with the potential for two ballot pages, given the number of local and other candidates.

She and her staff put an extra $75,000 into the FY17 budget in case such a lengthy ballot is necessary, she pointed out. “If we don’t need it, we won’t spend it.”

During a June 27 telephone interview, Dent’s chief of staff, Ron Turner, told The Sarasota News Leader that multiple ballot styles will be used throughout the county, depending on races in specific areas, but some ballots will have races on the front and back. He stressed that a notice on those ballots will advise voters to mark both sides.

Another unusual aspect about her FY17 budget, Dent said on June 22, is the need for her staff to mail out revised voter cards indicating a new supervisor of elections.

At one point, Dent began, “When Ron does …” She stopped herself short before starting again: “When my successor …”

Amid laughter in the Think Tank at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, Dent explained that because Turner had no opposition in his quest to succeed her — and the deadline for filing was noon on Friday — she anticipated he would be the new supervisor of elections. (He was declared the winner on June 24.)

Still, she conceded, “Is that a Freudian slip.”

“You will be reminded of that forever,” Commission Chair Al Maio teased her.

“Probably,” Dent replied. “But I’ve had some worse things I’ll be reminded of forever.”

Ron Turner. Rachel Hackney photo
Supervisor of Elections Chief of Staff Ron Turner. Rachel Hackney photo

Dent also thanked the board for allowing her office to purchase new voting equipment prior to the March Presidential Preference Primary. Then she explained, “We’re still working on a solution for equipment storage.” Most recently, she continued, county staff has proposed adding a second level to the section of the county’s BOB Building, located on Sarasota Center Boulevard east of the city, where that equipment is kept. Each time her office purchases new equipment, Dent added, “it takes more space.”

The $185,000 expense for modifying the storage area was included in her budget, she noted.

During the June 27 interview with the News Leader, Turner said county Facilities Department staff came up with the idea of a mezzanine level to provide extra space and then presented that to the Supervisor of Elections Office staff. The construction probably will not begin until after the November election, he said.

Property Appraiser’s Office

Property Appraiser Bill Furst provided the board an update on his staff’s investigation into potential homestead exemption fraud cases. Sarasota County has 97,855 homestead exemptions, he noted; research undertaken by a contractor showed that 987 needed to be assessed, of which 398 “were definitely fraudulent.” Another 315 were found to be in compliance, he continued, while the remaining 274 cases are the focus of further investigation.

From Oct. 1, 2015 through May of this year, Furst pointed out, his staff found property valued at $162,400,000 was not being taxed. As a result, $2,498,964 has been collected thus far from people who illegally claimed homestead exemptions. Investigations have led to property valued at $85.6 million being put back on the tax rolls, he added.

Property Appraiser Bill Furst. News Leader photo
Property Appraiser Bill Furst. News Leader photo

One complaint he has dealt with, Furst continued, is that his office has to assess a 15-percent penalty plus 15 percent in interest for any year or years within the past 10 in which a person claiming a homestead exemption was found not to be entitled to one. Those figures are set by the Legislature, he pointed out. “We cannot waive the interest; we cannot waive the penalty. … Fifteen percent [in interest is] a little high.”

Furst also noted that his FY17 budget includes two full-time employees — one to work with information technology and another to assist with investigations.

His capital expense is up $133,500 for FY17, he said, because of the need to renovate his office’s space in the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, “which hasn’t been updated in 20 years.”

In providing some statistics to the board, Furst noted that each of his full-time employees is responsible for 4,200 parcels, which is close to four times the number per person handled by staff in other county property appraiser offices, based on state figures.

Sarasota County has about 300,000 parcels, Furst noted. His cost to assess each is $20.06, according to the state data; in some counties in the Panhandle, he added, that expense is as high as $64 per parcel.

Medical Examiner

Until the Sarasota County Commission held a joint meeting with the Manatee County Commission on Oct. 29, 2015, the Sarasota County board and county staff had been planning to include a joint facility for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office forensics lab and the 12th Judicial Circuit Medical Examiner’s Office on a Public Safety Campus to be built on Cattlemen Road on property the county owns. On June 22, Chief Medical Examiner Russell S. Vega told the Sarasota County board, “It is clear at this point that Manatee County will not be participating in an integrated facility.”

Dr. Russell S. Vega, chief medical examiner. News Leader photo
Dr. Russell S. Vega, chief medical examiner. News Leader photo

During his FY17 budget presentation on June 22, Vega pointed out that he and his staff are continuing to operate out of three facilities — administrative offices on Siesta Drive, the Sarasota Memorial Hospital morgue and a Bradenton facility, where Manatee County cases are handled.

Renting the approximately 6,000 square feet on Siesta Drive in Sarasota will cost about $147,000 this year, he noted.

Sarasota County pays approximately 50 percent of his budget, he added, while the Manatee share generally ranges between 45 and 47 percent, and the DeSoto County proportion is between 4 and 4.5 percent.

His adopted FY16 budget was $3,042,316, while the FY17 budget is $3,109,366. Most of the increase is a result of higher staffing expenses, including liability insurance and health care, he said.

Last year, he reminded the board, “we had a marked increase in our case loads” because of the spike in accidental deaths related to use of heroin and fentanyl. (Entertainer Prince died from an accidental overdose of fentanyl, which is an opioid, a Midwest Medical Examiner Office’s toxicology report showed.) More clerical help may be necessary in coming years, he continued.

On an unrelated note, Vega told the board that he and his chief deputy were summoned to Orlando in the aftermath of the June 12 shooting at the Pulse nightclub during which 49 people were killed and 53 wounded. He and his chief deputy medical examiner are two of only three physicians statewide who are members of the Florida Emergency Mortuary Operations Response System, he added; the third person also resides in Sarasota County.

“It was a learning experience,” Vega continued. “Orlando is very fortunate to have a large up-to-date facility which allowed them to really approach this is an efficient … and professional manner.”

Seeing what transpired there, Vega added, made it clear how difficult it would be to handle a “mass fatality’ incident in Sarasota County.