News Up and Down the Trail

| December 1, 2013

By Stan Zimmerman

Human rights in Sarasota

The Sarasota County Commission keeps edging closer to considering a declaration of human rights. Commission Chair Carolyn Mason says she supported an ordinance on human rights that would ban discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, handicap or marital status. The ordinance would add sexual orientation and gender identity.

The cities of Sarasota and Venice already offer such protection, as well as many other cities across the state. The issue came up locally when a Venice condo association had rules banning gay and lesbian couples.

The county attorney is now drafting a declaration for commission consideration.

Don’t forget your umbrella

Sarasota is a third-world county when it comes to mass transit. The busses are clean but infrequent, but waiting for them is torture. For the enormous majority of stops, there is no bus shelter for protection from the sun and rain. Nor is there a seat. And to make matters worse, if there is a seat it’s surrounded by trash and ants, because there are no garbage cans.

After learning only 172 stops (of more than 2,000 stops) have shelters, county commissioners in November ordered staff to survey adjacent counties to find out how much they pay for shelters and how they are erected. Meanwhile they approved installing 47 more in the current fiscal year.

“We can’t get a grip on bus stops,” said County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. “Over 90 percent of our stops have nothing other than a sign in the ground. That’s bad, that’s just really bad.”

Domestic partnership registry passes

The Sarasota County Auditor and Clerk’s office is preparing to roll out a domestic partnership register after the county commission approved its establishment. The ordinance must be filed with the Secretary of State before it goes into effect.

Once established it allows unmarried domestic partners to register and receive documentation allowing visits to ailing partners in the hospital, and also make funeral decisions. The ordinance recognizes partnership registries in other venues, and grants them the same rights as Sarasota County.

One county commissioner offered the reminder the partnership is not a substitute for legal powers of attorney or living wills.

Hospitals blocked from reimbursement

A three-year-long lawsuit has been settled, with three private hospitals losing their bid for reimbursement for indigent care. Circuit Judge Kimberly Bonner ruled Venice Regional Medical Center, Doctors Hospital of Sarasota and the Englewood Community Hospital are not entitled to taxpayer money to pay for treating people too poor to pay.

The hospitals were basing their claim on a half-century law called the “Special Act.” Bonner ruled one paragraph was unconstitutional because it gave a privilege to private corporations.  Had the hospitals won, it would have cost additional millions for indigent care. The current health and human services budget currently exceeds $8 million.

City ponders bid density bump

A local attorney is asking the Sarasota City Commission to triple density in the area north of Fruitville Road adjacent to downtown. The area is called the Rosemary District.

Lawyer Bill Merrill is asking for a quickie change to the city’s comprehensive plan because his client wants to get the project under way. The area is now zoned Downtown Edge, and carries a 25 units-per-acre limit on density. Merrill is asking for 75 or 80 units per acre to build affordable housing in the downtown area.

A similar scheme – called a “residential overlay district” – was tried in downtown just as property values started to tumble. Only one project considered using the extra density, but it did not move forward.

Two downtown icons gone

Returning seasonal residents and snowbird tourists will find two long-standing establishments downtown are missing. The Golden Apple Dinner Theater and the Bullet Hole are defunct.

The space they occupied is being gutted and rebuilt for new tenants. The Equity theater was one of the oldest in Florida. The Bullet Hole for decades was the downtown source for guns and ammo.

Tourist tax breaks record in 2013

The county’s five percent tax on short-term accommodations set a new record for collections. A total of $14.8 million was collected, just shy of the $15 million budgeted. The final tally could still rise a bit as hotels and motels made adjustments to their records. The county’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley says her “dashboard figures” show about a six percent growth in visitors for the fiscal year, with spending up about 7.3 percent. She said the county’s increase was slightly ahead of statewide figures.

The receipts are charted by collection location. Siesta Key retained the top spot with 32 percent of the total, followed by the City of Sarasota at 30 percent. The City of Venice collects six percent of the total, and the Town of Longboat Key (which straddles the Sarasota-Manatee County line) got 11 percent. Northport in southern Sarasota County collected less than one-half of one percent.

Half-billion up for grabs

A little-known committee since last summer has grappled with the fate of what its chairman believes could be $500,000,000.00 in property taxes. The group’s title is a mouthful: the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area Extension Study Committee.

Almost thirty years ago the city and county struck a deal. They would freeze the property tax collection at 1986 levels for a defined area of downtown Sarasota. Each year, as taxes rose from increased assessed value, the extra – called the “tax increment” – would be spent on improvements to the area.

Last fiscal year the “increment” was worth about $8.5 million. The deal expires in 2016, and the committee is tasked with making recommendations about what should happen. Should the deal be extended? For how long? Should 1986 remain the “base year?” Should the area be expanded?

After months of study and discussion, the hard decisions will be made this month for presentation to the city and county in January.

Selby opens rainforest garden

The Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden is open for fun at Selby Gardens where U.S. 41 turns its back on the bay. It capitalizes on banyans planted in the early 1920s, uses a rope bridge, adventure trails and even a research station for budding botanists.

The $5 million campaign includes a $1 million endowment. The money came from hundreds of people and organizations. It features tropical plants and water features including a waterfall.

Hazardous people win award         

We are surrounded by unsung heroes. People who toil day-in-day-out to make life better for the rest of us. One group of them works at the dead end of Bee Ridge Road, at the chemical collection center.

Sarasota County’s Hazardous Waste Department is the recipient of the 2013 North American Hazardous Materials Management Association’s Longstanding Program of Excellence Award.

Starting with their first amnesty day in 1985, the “hazardous people” have collected uncounted thousands of gallons of pesticides, paint, used motor oil and other lethal compounds that otherwise would end up – eventually – in the waters of Sarasota County.

Electronics, fluorescent bulbs, batteries, aerosols, pool chemicals, the list is long and ugly that arrives daily at the end-of-Bee Ridge site. And sharps. More than 5,000 pounds of needles, lancets and other medical “sharps” have been safely disposed there.

Déjà vu real estate

Ten years ago Sarasota County threatened to pull the county seat out of the city if it did not get the property under the then-standing Sarasota City Police Department headquarters building on Ringling Boulevard. The county wanted the land for a new criminal justice tower.

The city knuckled under, demolished the 1950s-era brick building and built a new state-of-the-art police HQ with a $30 million voter-approved bond issue on Adams Lane nearby. But the city never got around to conveying title of the old site. Nor did the memo of understanding approved by both the city and county commissions require conveyance.

Now the county wants the land again, this time for parking. Or something. County Commissioner Joe Barbetta said, “That’s a substantial piece of property next to the judicial center. We need to be doing something with that piece of property or put that on the market. One or the other.”

Proposals flew over use of the property. A parking garage.  A bus transfer station. A new criminal justice tower. And complicating matters is a state requirement the county tax collector begin issuing driver’s licenses in June, 2015. That’s an extra 137 more customers per day to the adjacent county office complex in the Terrace Hotel at Ringling and U.S. 301.

Oldest human remains under negotiation

Way, way down on U.S. 41 is the City of North Port. Last stop in Sarasota County. The city is noteworthy for two significant reasons. One is Warm Mineral Springs, a naturally heated pool that attracts people from around the world. A health spa now closed over disagreements between the city and county.

The second is Little Salt Springs, another pool.  It’s owned by the University of Miami. Specifically its anthropology department, because the 112-acre site is the home of the oldest human remains in North America. Not just bones, but actual flesh because this spring is not warm. Bodies were interred by launching them into the 200-foot depths.

But North Port is a long way from Miami. The university wants to divest itself of the responsibility for guarding and managing this unique site. The county has proposed the university convey the ownership as-is for no fee. The property is appraised at $2.1 million, although the university received it in 1982 as a gift. It now costs the university about $100,000 per year for a full-time caretaker and maintenance.

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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