Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

City-County Drama Flares | Dispute Centers on Inclusion of City Property on County's Tax Roll

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

City-County Drama Flares | Dispute Centers on Inclusion of City Property on County's Tax Roll

Article excerpt

SARASOTA

At least some Sarasota County officials knew as far back as November that the city of Sarasota city protested the inclusion of municipal-owned properties on the county tax roll, but they failed to inform county commissioners before a key vote on the matter last week.

Emails obtained by the Herald-Tribune show that the city of Sarasota first contacted the county about the issue on Nov. 26, 2014, nearly a year before its attorneys appeared at a county budget hearing to formally object to the tax roll.

Surprised by the city's objection, county commissioners on Sept. 14 demanded to know why attorneys had waited until the last minute to come forward. Commissioner Christine Robinson accused them of "political theater" and Commissioner Charles Hines of condescension.

The Herald-Tribune left messages for several county staff members involved in the months-long email discussion with the city last week. None of those messages were returned.

County spokesman Jason Bartolone said the county is researching the matter and had contacted the city as of last Thursday morning to set up a meeting before the next budget hearing, which is on Tuesday.

At issue is a special fire-rescue assessment the county has levied on 16 city-owned properties -- properties which the county tax appraiser deemed exempt from ad valorem taxation because they are government-owned and used for the public's benefit.

The city argues that properties excluded from property taxation also are immune to other kinds of levies, such as a special fire- rescue assessment. It further contends that one government entity cannot tax or assess another, an opinion also held by the Florida Supreme Court in a recent case against the city of Coral Springs.

In that case, Coral Springs had levied a fire assessment on the North Broward Hospital District, which is a legislatively created entity and thus not subject to taxation, the court found. The court demanded Coral Springs reimburse the hospital district.

GrayRobinson, the law firm that won that case, now works for the city of Sarasota on its claim against Sarasota County's fire-rescue assessment.

"You can't do through the back door what you can't do through the front door," said one of the firm's attorneys, John Herin. "If you can't tax them, you can't assess them."

Herin said he's confident the city will win if the issue is litigated but hopes the county removes the tax before it gets to that point.

Bill begins debate

The issue arose last year when the city received a bill for the county's fire-rescue assessment on two dozen of its properties.

In the Nov. 26 email, city finance director John Lege notified the county about what he believed was an error.

Citing the county's own code exempting government property from the fire-rescue assessment, Lege asked Assistant County Administrator and Chief Financial Officer Steven Botelho for help correcting the issue. …

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