Tax collector still wrestling with need for more parking near the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota

Barbara Ford-Coates also reports to the County Commission that she has received the first check from Airbnb

An aerial view shows the Terrace Building (at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Ringling Boulevard) and nearby parking areas. Image from Google Maps

After the new Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office opens — tentatively in the spring of 2018 — and the Pompano Avenue office where driver tests are administered closes — customer parking challenges are expected to increase in the vicinity of the Terrace Building in downtown Sarasota, Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates told the Sarasota County Commission this week.

“Possibly 100 more cars a day” would need spaces, she said.

As part of her June 20 budget presentation for the 2018 fiscal year, Ford-Coates explained that the Adams Lane public parking lot is frequently full. She has continued to work with county staff on finding a solution to the problem, she pointed out.

“Have you written or requested the same of the City of Sarasota?” Commissioner Charles Hines asked.

“I met with [city staff] a year and a half ago and with Jeff Lowdermilk from your staff,” Ford-Coates replied. Lowdermilk is the director of the county’s General Services Department. “We’ve just not made any progress yet,” she added.

Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner also has talked about his concerns regarding the parking situation at the Terrace Building, Hines told her, as Turner’s main office is housed there as well.

Referencing a dispute between the City and County commissions over ownership of the former site of the Sarasota Police Department — on Ringling Boulevard, near the Terrace Building — Hines told Ford-Coates, “There’s a political football in regards to that property …”

A 2003 Memorandum of Understanding called for the parcel to be conveyed to the county after the completion of the new Police Department headquarters on Adams Lane. However, City Attorney Robert Fournier has advised City Manager Tom Barwin and the City Commission that he believes the city has no obligation to give the property to the county. (See the related story in this issue.)

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates. Image from the Tax Collector’s Office website

“The city residents are the ones who need that [extra area for parking],” Ford-Coates said during the June 20 discussion with the County Commission. After all, she pointed out, those are the customers who would be most expected to utilize the services of her downtown Sarasota office

When Hines asked whether city staff had told her the former Police Department site would not be an option for additional parking, Ford-Coates responded, “I wouldn’t say that the answer has been ‘No.’ What I’ve heard is that the city is working with your staff.”

“That’s interesting,” Hines replied.

She and her employees also would like to see the government lot on the other side of Morrill Street, near the Terrace Building, made available for the public, Ford-Coates said. “It’s never all that full.”

“Keep asking; keep pushing,” Hines recommended.

Over the past 12 months, she continued, her staff has served more than 100,000 driver’s license customers and handled 6,500 road tests. The fees from those services are up 100% from May 2015, to the level of $900,000 a year, Ford-Coates noted, “which is good.”

Still, she said, she believes the Legislature should increase the fees for those services.

On other topics …

Ford-Coates did offer a note of good news on June 20 in regard to a different initiative: The previous day, she said, her staff received the first payment from Airbnb encompassing Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue owed to the county by Sarasota County hosts associated with the internet-based accommodations service.

The amount was $64,000, Ford-Coates reported.

On April 3, the County Commission approved a contract with Airbnb after more than a year of work with the company to ensure that the TDT revenue owed to the county could be collected and that Ford-Coates’ staff also could pursue money that hosts should have been paid in past years.

Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

In response to another question from Hines on June 20, Ford-Coates noted that Airbnb will be making monthly payments to her office. The $64,000 is not altogether new revenue, she pointed out, as some of the hosts already were complying with the law to turn over TDT receipts to her office.

Hines then asked whether Ford-Coates could provide the board regular updates on the Airbnb payments. The figures “would be good to know,” he added.

The amount probably can be incorporated into her office’s monthly reports on the TDT collections, Ford-Coates said. (The reports may be downloaded from her office’s website.)

As for the primary reason she was appearing before the board that day: Ford-Coates explained, “My office budget does not come from your General Fund.”

Instead, she continued, the funding for her office is covered by the $19 million in fees for collection services her staff provides each year. In fact, she continued, she estimates turning over more than $10 million to the county at the end of this fiscal year, because of the surplus of fee revenue over expenses; “otherwise known as profit in the private sector.”

She added, “You received $9.9 million of that ‘profit’ last year.”

The Florida Department of Revenue approves her budget, which must be submitted by Aug. 1, she noted.

Although her office’s primary responsibility is handling driver’s license transactions, Ford-Coates pointed out, altogether, its services involve the processing of more than 1 million items a year, representing almost $1 billion in dollars collected and distributed.

On an average each day, she said, the “100 exceptional people” on her staff help 1,300 customers, answer 600 phone calls and process 850 pieces of mail.

The Tax Collector’s Office also handles the titling and registering of motor vehicles, and it issues hunting and fishing licenses.

The cost per capita of her staff “is significantly lower” than the cost of employees in all the other tax collector offices in Southwest Florida, she pointed out, and one of the lowest in the state. Furthermore, Ford-Coates noted, she has the fourth lowest number of employees per capita in the state.

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates’ budget is not paid for by the county’s General Fund but by fees her office charges, she has explained. The internal service charges it shows are calculated by county staff, but ‘we do not control that amount nor is it included in our budget that [the Florida Department of Revenue] approves,” Tax Collector’s Office spokesman Ray Porter tells the News Leader.
Additionally, Ford-Coates told the board, her office’s business has reached the level in North Port to necessitate staff members each Wednesday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Both Commissioners Alan Maio and Nancy Detert complimented Ford-Coates on her staff. As a customer of the office at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, Detert noted, she has found the Tax Collector’s Office employees “so friendly and nice.”

Given the number of customers who come to that office, Detert added, the situation could devolve into gridlock, “but those lines move faster.” Whenever a line starts to lengthen, an employee who is otherwise occupied jumps up to assist the public, Detert said.