People needing to get their driver’s licenses in person have five options in Sarasota County, all operated now by the Tax Collector’s Office
Since May 26, anyone in Sarasota County needing to obtain a driver’s license or renew one in person has had five options — all the offices of the Sarasota County Tax Collector, ranging from downtown Sarasota to North Port, plus the former Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles facility near the Sarasota County Fairgrounds.
That was the news Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates provided to the Sarasota County Commission during its June 24 budget workshop.
Regarding the former state facility at 601 S. Pompano Ave., just north of the fairgrounds off Fruitville Road, she pointed out that it took a week of “cleaning, cleaning, cleaning and cleaning” to bring it up to the standards she requires for serving customers.
Until a new county Tax Collector’s Office is open in about two years on Sawyer Loop Road, just off Clark Road, the Pompano Avenue location will be the only one where a person can take a driving test, Ford-Coates said during the budget workshop. Part of the transformation of the Pompano Avenue facility after the state turned it over to the Tax Collector’s Office in mid-May entailed restriping of the course applicants must use, she added.
Further good news, she said, is that while it previously took six weeks to schedule an appointment for a driving test, her staff has whittled that down to less than three weeks. Ford-Coates told The Sarasota News Leader on Sept. 1 that her staff is continuing to work to decrease the waiting time.
Because of a 2011 Florida Legislature mandate, all county tax collectors were required to take over the driver’s license issuance and renewal business as of June of this year. To accommodate the change, not only are Ford-Coates and her staff working with county employees on the Sawyer Loop Road project, but they also are in the midst of significant modifications to the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota, where the Tax Collector’s Office shares space with the Sarasota County Property Appraiser and the Supervisor of Elections.
After a public hearing on Nov. 5, 2014, the County Commission approved the spending of $1.2 million for the renovations.
“It’s massive insanity,” Ford-Coates told the News Leader with a laugh, referring to the construction work — including the replacement of all the plumbing — in the well-known structure located at 101 S. Washington Blvd. in Sarasota.
For example, the Adams Lane entrance to the Terrace Building is closed right now, so signs direct customers to walk around to a side entrance for the Tax Collector’s and Property Appraiser’s offices, she noted.
Still, “it’s going to be nice” when the renovations are completed in December, she said, with customers having much easier access.
In the meantime, Ford-Coates emphasized to the News Leader this week, as she did to the County Commission, how pleased she is to have the Pompano Avenue facility in far better shape. She presented the county board slides showing numerous physical improvements to the interior and exterior, and she expressed her gratitude for the collaboration of county staff with people in Sheriff Tom Knight’s Offender Work Program, who cleaned out “the huge amount of overgrown vegetation on that property.”
She told the News Leader, “Pompano has been an amazing effort.”
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo drew laughter when he commented that, in his youth, a trip to the facility made him feel as though he were going to meet with a probation officer.
The parking problem
Ford-Coates also told the commissioners that her downtown Sarasota office already had seen an 8-percent increase in the number of customers, while the South Sarasota office — located at 8484 S. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota, west of Palmer Ranch — had experienced a 15-percent uptick in foot traffic.
With more people coming to the Terrace Building, Ford-Coates said, “I do want to mention, again, that I have an ongoing concern about parking … and the Adams Lane parking lot. We need additional parking already.”
“Can you repeat that, ’cause there’s a ‘postage-stamp’ [lot] next to the [Silvertooth] courthouse we might be able to use for parking,” Commissioner Christine Robinson responded, eliciting laughter from some of her fellow board members.
Robinson was referring to an ongoing dispute with the Sarasota City Commission regarding a 2003 agreement that called for the city to transfer to the county the former site of the Sarasota Police Department on Ringling Boulevard in return for a commitment from the county to maintain its administrative offices and the court facilities in downtown Sarasota.
Ford-Coates told the board she also was looking into the option of whether the one-block street next to the Payne Park tennis courts near the Terrace Building could be closed, so more parking spaces could be created there.
“We need to do something, and I know county staff is looking at that,” she said.
A third option, suggested by Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst, she noted, would be to shorten the three-hour time limit for on-street parking in the vicinity of the Terrace Building.
Commissioner Charles Hines, an attorney, voiced concern about that proposal, noting that people in the midst of a court proceeding that was lasting longer than anticipated would be leery of having to ask the judge for a brief recess so they could move vehicles to avoid being ticketed.
Regarding the former Police Department site, Hines said, “Whether that particular lot gets transferred to us or not, it needs to be used, and it’s a current waste and a disservice to all the citizens.”
Ford-Coates told the News Leader this week that she and her staff have scheduled a meeting with City Manager Tom Barwin for the middle of this month to review the parking situation and try to gain his support for solutions. “Maybe we can make [the former Police Department location] into a grass [parking] lot,” she added.
Pluses and minuses
Ford-Coates has remained firm in her belief that the state’s mandated switch to having tax collectors handle drivers’ licenses is a positive one, as she first told the County Commission during her budget presentation in June 2013. “Make no mistake about it,” she said in the News Leader interview this week, “we should be doing it.”
However, Ford-Coates continues to point out that tax collectors are not getting any extra money from the state to cover their new expenses. “We sure would like a little funding for that,” she told the News Leader, so county taxpayers would be relieved of having to pick up all the costs.
A Class E Florida driver’s license — the type for which the average person applies — costs $48. Tax collectors receive a $6.25 processing fee for each one.
“That’s probably a legislative issue,” Ford-Coates said of the funding matter, adding that she expects it to be dealt with in the 2016 session of the Florida Legislature.
In the meantime, Sarasota County staff continues to work on the design of the new facility that will be built for the Tax Collector’s Office on Sawyer Loop Road. During the County Commission’s Aug. 21 budget workshop, Public Works Director Isaac Brownman pointed out that the cost estimate for that facility had increased to $6,684,768.20, up $1,445,768.20 from an earlier figure provided to the board. The project was at the 30-percent design mark, he noted.
The commissioners voted unanimously to allow the project to proceed, with plans calling for the extra expenses to be covered by impact fees ($711,000) and the borrowing of funds ($734,000), which will be repaid by general revenues.
Brownman and County Administrator Tom Harmer assured the board that county staff would continue to work with Ford-Coates and her employees to explore every option to reduce the costs.
After that structure is completed, Ford-Coates has said, the Pompano Avenue office will be closed.
Some modifications will be necessary at the Tax Collector’s Office in the R.L. Anderson Building at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice, Ford-Coates told the commission in June, though that facility should see the smallest impact because her staff has been handling drivers’ licenses there since 2008.
Her North Port office is located in City Hall at 4970 City Hall Blvd.