Sarasota County tax collector expects to return more than $12 million to county after current fiscal year ends

Barbara Ford-Coates’ budget covered by her office’s fees and other collections, she reminds County Commission

The Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office provides a variety of services. Image from its website

Thanks in part to continued growth in driver license services, Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates expects to return more than $12 million to Sarasota County after the end of this fiscal year.

That was part of the news she delivered to the County Commission during its June 19 budget workshop.

In the business world, Ford-Coates pointed out, the money would be called “profit.” It reflects the difference between the fees her staff collects and her office’s expenses. Last year, she noted, her office returned about $10.6 million to the county.

Her budget, she reminded the commissioners, does not come out of the county’s General Fund. Instead, it is covered by the $20 million in fees and collection services her office handles, she said.

The only General Fund money that goes into her budget, she explained, is the approximately $1.4 million that her office receives from the county for collecting its property tax revenue.

Altogether, she said, her staff collects about $1 billion per year, processes a million transactions, serves 1,400 customers in person, answers 650 phone calls and processes 850 pieces of mail. Yet, she pointed out, the cost per capita for the work her staff does “continues to be significantly lower than [that of] all the other tax collectors on the west coast of Florida.” The figure is the fifth lowest in the state, in fact, she told the board, and the number of employees she has per capita is one of the lowest in the state. “I have an exceptional staff that love to do their work and do it efficiently for our customers,” Ford-Coates said.

As she has for the past several years, Ford-Coates also provided an update on the driver’s license work her staff handles, noting that that began in May 2015 as a result of a state mandate.

Over the past 12 months, she said, her staff helped more than 115,000 driver’s license customers and conducted 6,200 road tests. The annual amount of fees her office has collected from that work has increased about $550,000, she pointed out: The figure is close to $1 million a year.

With facilities, the good news and the not-so-good

An aerial view shows the Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office when it was still under construction on Sawyer Loop Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Ford-Coates expressed her gratitude to the commissioners for constructing the new Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office on Sawyer Loop Road in Sarasota. “I can’t say how much I want to thank you and your staff,” she told the board members.

Since that office opened on April 30, she continued, more than 10,000 customers have been served, including almost 1,000 who have taken road tests.

“It’s been exciting to see the positive reactions from customers, as well as the staff that enjoys working in that new building,” she added.

Moving into the facility enabled her to eliminate the expense of leasing a South Tamiami Trail office, she noted, as well as having to provide services at the former Florida Highway Patrol station on Pompano Avenue, next to the Sarasota County Fairgrounds.

Laughingly calling the latter “perhaps not the nicest building,” she pointed out that it is available to the commissioners “for whatever you deem appropriate.”

The only concern she expressed to the commissioners was one she has pointed to consistently in recent years: “parking at the Terrace Building,” where her downtown Sarasota office is located.

When her staff was preparing to take over the driver’s license duties, she began voicing concern about the lack of available parking near that building, which also houses offices for the Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser.

The Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota is home to the main offices of the Sarasota County Tax Collector and Supervisor of Elections. File photo

“I thought my staff was overstating the impact,” she said, when predicting that, after the Pompano Avenue facility closed, customer traffic at the Terrace Building would increase 20%. They kept emphasizing to her, she said, “Twenty percent, 20%, 20%.” Yet, she acknowledged, “We’re at 17% on an average basis.”

She did thank the board for making 12 spaces in a government parking lot on the south end of Adams Lane available to the public. Still, she noted, when early voting begins for the Aug. 28 Primary, she fears people will be frustrated as they search for spaces. Her staff will do its best, she said, to direct customers to the Mid-County Office or to handle transactions online.

Commissioner Charles Hines told Detert that he hoped the parking situation would be improved soon. “Hopefully, our staff is very, very close,” Hines said, to finalizing an agreement with the City of Sarasota that will include the creation of a new public parking area where the Sarasota Police Department formerly stood on Ringling Boulevard, just east of the Silvertooth Judicial Center.

That parking lot is one facet of the two local governments’ proposed agreement to settle a two-year-old financial dispute involving the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

A December 2017 graphic shows one concept for parking spaces on the former Sarasota Police Department site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I would just like to thank you for running a great office,” Chair Nancy Detert told Ford-Coates at the conclusion of the presentation. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard a complaint [since Ford-Coates has been tax collector],” Detert added.

Ford-Coates responded that she always sees complaints as “an opportunity to make a change.”

“I’ve just heard the nicest things,” Detert continued. In fact, Detert said, she even has heard that staff in the Tax Collector’s Office has been known to chip in a dollar when a customer was short on a payment.

“That has been known to happen,” Ford-Coates replied.

Then Hines noted that his youngest son visited the Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office the previous Thursday to take the road test for his driver’s license. “He passed,” Hines added.

“‘Remember to stop at the stop sign and use your signals,’” Ford-Coates replied, saying that is the advice she has for teens trying to pass the test. “Those things have failed more 16-year-olds than you can imagine.”

Hines responded that his son’s friend failed the road test because he did not use turn signals as he should have.

With Ford-Coates’ presentation the last of those by the county’s constitutional officers planned for the June 19 budget workshop, Detert said, “Seems like a love fest today, but, we honest to God just have great staff in every category …”