Up and Down the Trail

| July 1, 2017

By Roger Drouin

Marketing company relocates west

Another company is relocating to Sarasota, this one is moving from Boca Raton. The software and digital marketing company FloorForce is relocating to downtown Sarasota and has announced plans to hire 72 full-time employees over the next five years.

The company will be housed inside Bold, 1680 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, the former home of the Hub, and will receive $144,000 in county tax dollars as part of an incentive package that will be paid out over eight years as jobs are created and maintained. FloorForce works with more than 250 flooring manufacturers and more than 1,000 floor-covering retailers. The company bills itself as “maintaining the largest database of flooring products in the world” and provides website and marketing services to manufacturers, distributors and flooring retailers across North America.

Homestead fraud in the millions

Homestead exemptions can save resident homeowners thousands, but recent fraudulent exemptions have cost the county millions.

Sarasota County is slated to receive $8.3 million more in property tax revenue, thanks to an extensive homestead fraud audit that found $76 million in new taxable property value across the county.

The audit uncovered more than $8.3 million in property taxes owed from fraudulent homestead exemptions claimed throughout Sarasota County. The audit found nearly 550 cases of homestead exemption fraud.

Sarasota County is believed to be the first in the state to conduct such an extensive audit into the lucrative exemption for resident homeowners. The county property appraiser submitted a total of 110,000 homestead exemptions to an outside auditing firm. Of those, 98,000 were analyzed. The other 12,000 had been recently reviewed and approved in 2016, so they were excluded.

In Florida and many states, property owners can claim a tax break for the home they live in full-time, referred to as a homestead exemption. Owners cannot claim the benefit on more than one property, but it can be difficult for property appraisers in different jurisdictions to track, leading to some accidental and some more intentional attempts to claim residency. The 547 cases of fraud represent only about 0.5 percent of local properties receiving the exemption in the county.

City, county mull tax increases

Residents should get prepared for the possibility of saying “Goodbye” to flat tax millage rates.

As the city and county work through the summer on respective budget processes, each government is proposing the first property tax increases in years.

Both the City and County Commissions are considering increases of 0.1 mill to their respective property tax rates, according to budget proposals. Each increase, if implemented, would cost the owner of a $250,000 home with a homestead exemption a little more than $20 more on their tax bill for the coming year, which would mean about $40 for a home within city limits subject to both increases, city and county financial staff said. That amount would increase for the properties worth more this year as part of the county property appraiser’s increased values. Sarasota County also will consider a new 5 percent “public service tax” on utilities — electric, gas and water consumption — for customers in the unincorporated county to help close the county’s projected budget gaps in the next five years, according to the proposal. The state allows certain local governments to charge up to a 10 percent tax on those services, which the city already levies.

Budget workshops began in June, for both the county and city. Sarasota County finalizes its budget in September after public hearings. If OK’d this year, the county’s tax increase would be the first in two decades. The increase, according to county officials, would help cover funding several new and deferred capital projects, such as a new sheriff’s office headquarters on Cattlemen Road, a new sheriff’s office fleet facility, a renovated south county courthouse, and preliminary plans to replace the county’s energy plant that distributes power and air conditioning to the jail, county offices and courthouses.

New Bobby Jones design takes shape

A golf architect has been wrapping up design work for the Bobby Jones Golf Club master plan. Richard Mandell held recent public workshops at the city-owned gold course to provide updates on his work and seek public feedback on the plans. Most of the more significant improvements Mandell is recommending are contained to the Gillespie Executive Course west of Circus Boulevard, which he wants to transform into a training area with a larger driving range. Mandell is also recommending significant infrastructure improvements, including improved stormwater drainage. On the two 18-hole courses, the American and British courses, Mandell wants to preserve the character of the 36 holes while also improving the conditions for golfers.

The city has voiced a goal of reinvigorating Bobby Jones as both revenue and public use of the course have declined annually. In 2015, a citizen advisory committee recommended $14.5 million in improvements. In January, the city approved a $115,000 contract with Richard Mandell Golf Architecture to develop a master plan. There’s no timeline on the improvements at this point, but improvements would likely be conducted in phases. Mandell is scheduled to present a final report to the City Commission this month (in July).

Bayfront group sets planning goal

The Sarasota Bayfront is going to look different soon, if planning efforts come to fruition — and a blueprint those plans could take shape as early as next year.

By June 2018, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 wants to have a Master Plan for the bayfront. In the meantime, the group wants to generate some activity on the property.

Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, the group leading the bayfront planning effort, has set the goal of submitting to city officials a community-driven Master Plan for redeveloping more than 40 acres of city-owned bayfront land near the Van Wezzel Performing Arts Hall.

The Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, composed of a group of residents working in coordination with the broader Bayfront 20:20 community group, is searching for a planning consultant to take the lead in developing the master plan. Between July and September, the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization will solicit responses. The group hopes to choose a company by October.

Comp Plan earns reward

The county's Comprehensive Plan has received the 2017 Award of Merit from the Florida Planning and Zoning Association (FPZA). The FPZA is a professional planning organization consisting of planners, zoning officers, property owners, developers, engineers, private and public lawyers, landscape architects, appointed and elected officials, lay persons, businesses and administrators. The organization's awards committee noted it was impressed with the streamlined, user-friendly plan, which guides the county's decision-making related to the physical development of the county.

Last year, the county's Planning and Development Services staff, as well as more than 50 subject matter experts from each county department, completed an 18-month update to this important, overarching plan in order to reflect changes to community characteristics and demographics. Staff received the Award of Merit during the 2017 FPZA Awards Luncheon at the Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples.

Honoring Mr. Downtown

June 17 was Paul Thorpe Day at the downtown Sarasota Farmers Market. In 1979, Thorpe, a local merchant, started the market.  

According to the Farmers Market website, it started with only a few vendors and has grown over the last 38 years into being recognized throughout the country as one of the most successful markets. Paul, known as Mr. Downtown, has organized many events that have attracted people to the downtown core, including the farmers market.

Burn ban lifted in county

Recent rain did more than green lawns and landscaping. Last month, Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier lifted the countywide recreational burn ban that was put in place back in April.

The mandatory burn ban for the county was put in place until weather conditions changed and the chances of wildfire were reduced. Since seasonal rain patterns have begun, officials have seen a reduction in the wildfire threat throughout Sarasota County.

When Sarasota County enacted the ban, wildfires had affected 88,434 acres of land in Florida between Jan. 1 and April 21, according to the Florida Forest Service.

Although the burn ban was lifted, Regnier urged Sarasota County residents to always be safe when dealing with fire and to always follow local open burning ordinance rules and regulations.

Coast Guard closes New Pass

The U.S. Coast Guard closed New Pass to boaters in the middle of last month. The Coast Guard closed the channel between Longboat and Lido Keys and removed the navigational markers. “In nine months, the channel has become unsafe due to shoaling that was intensified following the major storms during the 2016 hurricane season,” a Coast Guard official said in a news release. Two channel lights will be changed into “Danger Shoal” markers. The Coast Guard says boaters should avoid the area until after it is dredged, and they say aids to navigation will be returned once conditions improve.

North Port leads growth

According to the U.S. Census, all nine municipalities in the Sarasota-Manatee region experienced population growth, but at varying rates. As a continuing sign of recovery from the Great Recession, the region experienced population growth during 2015-16, according to data released in late May by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The growth varied considerably, with 2,056 new residents who settled in North Port — making it the fastest growing city in the two-county area — to 20 newcomers new to Bradenton Beach.

Sarasota ranked as the second-fastest expanding city in the area, with its population climbing 2.5 percent from 55,181 to 56,610. Back in March, the bureau identified Sarasota-Manatee as the 10th fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States during the period between July 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016.

Iconic bar under contract for sale

The Five O’Clock Club, a long-time Sarasota live music venue and bar in the Hillview area, is under contract for sale.

Real estate agent John Caragiulo at Hembree & Associates has a listing posted for the “iconic and legendary Sarasota bar,” that has been in constant operation for over five decades, according to a media report in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Priced at $475,000, it’s marked as a pending sale.

So what will go in its place?

The realtor told the Herald-Tribune both parties want to keep terms of the sale confidential for now, but the prospective owners have expressed interest in maintaining a live music element and keeping the business open through the transition.

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