Tag Archives: 03-27-2013

Lakewood Ranch resort tax collections rival Anna Maria Island

Just four months into the fiscal year, the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is seeing a 13.1 percent rise in resort tax collections for 2012-13 from unincorporated Manatee County — primarily the Lakewood Ranch area — compared with the same period last year.

Comparing the past 36 months of resort tax collections with tourism gains, the resort tax increase for unincorporated Manatee County translates into a tourism jump of about 6.5 percent, Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman noted.

“That’s about what we have on the island. If resort taxes are up 15 percent, tourism is up 7.5 percent, and we’ve been checking these figures the past three years. They’ve been pretty steady,” she said.

The resort tax is the 5 percent tax collected by Manatee County on rentals of six months or less. Often called the bed tax, the money funds the county’s share of beach renourishment, and contributes to the Bradenton Convention Center, the BACVB, the Crosley Mansion, McKechnie Field and other amenities and projects.

The resort tax collections division of the Manatee County Tax Collector’s Office reported $758,503 collected in unincorporated Manatee County for the first four months of the 2012-13 fiscal year, while $670,585 was collected from that area in the same months in 2011-12.

It’s evidence that the BACVB effort to increase county tourism with promotions for areas other than the island communities, particularly Lakewood Ranch, is working, said Deb Meihls, marketing director for the BACVB.

“While the beaches are the lead for tourism, for the past three years we’ve been promoting all areas of the county, including Lakewood Ranch, the barrier islands, and all points in between. We promote a lot more than the beaches and the figures appear to support our efforts. It was not something that could happen overnight, but we’re starting to see good results from the plan,” Meihls said.

The BACVB also began to push for more international visitors as studies show Europeans have longer vacation times and stay in the United States longer than other international visitors, she said.

Expanded tourism throughout the county is evidenced by more than just increasing resort taxes and visitors.

The Manatee-Sarasota area appears to be one of the leading markets to host the 2017 International Rowing Championships, a sports event that will draw at least 40,000 competitors, coaches and spectators, Meihls said.

The host venue is to be announced in September, but an international rowing facility already is under construction adjacent to the University Boulevard-Interstate-75 intersection, which divides Manatee and Sarasota counties.

 

Tax collection climbs

Sue Sinquefield of the resort tax collection division reports that $2.436.6 million has been collected for the first four months of the fiscal year — October through January — compared with $2.125.4 million for the same period the previous fiscal year.

That’s a 14.6 percent jump from last year at this time and ahead of pace for the record $8.1 million received in the 2011-12 fiscal year. The figures do not yet include collections for February and March as resort taxes are paid 30 days in arrears, she said.

Sinquefield said better collection methods, more renters and more owners and agents reporting income are helping collections. She said the department also sees good results from occasional door-to-door canvassing of vacation rentals to achieve compliance.

She said field agent trips in the past year to knock on doors in known areas of vacation rentals have brought “tremendous results.”

It also helps that tourism keeps climbing, she added. The visitor figures for 2012 show tourism up 7.5 percent compared with 2011, with nearly 750,000 visitors to the area last year.

When an unlicensed owner or agent is found, they not only have to pay to register, but also any resort taxes and sales tax not previously paid.

Sinquefield said it would be fair to say that many new owners and agents registered and paid resort taxes in the past year.

While Manatee is reporting large gains in resort tax collections, the city of Anna Maria had the largest increase in one year — $139,970 in collections for January 2013, a 113 percent gain from the $60,302 collected in January 2012.

Brockman said she fully expects another record year for island tourism, as well as resort collections.

“I think we are way up on accommodation rentals and occupancy. We had an incredible spring break and there are almost no rooms left the remainder of March for more than a few days,” she said.

Brockman agreed the Lakewood Ranch area took a large burden of island traffic this year. Traffic is always bad during the season, but with more visitors to Bradenton this year, island traffic hasn’t been overwhelming, she said.

“I think everyone who rented out in the Lakewood Ranch area came to the island at least for a day visit. The idea of tourism growth out east is a great one, and will only benefit the island,” she said. “As more people come to east Manatee County, more people will visit Anna Maria Island,” Brockman said.

New challenges face 2013 sea turtle nesting season

Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch & Shorebird Monitoring volunteers are just catching their breath after a record 2012 sea turtle nesting season.

According to AMITW executive director Suzi Fox, while this year’s season doesn’t begin until May 1, AMITW volunteers gathered March 18 at Holmes Beach City Hall to learn of this year’s challenges.

Fox said beach renourishment plans are scheduled for this summer on island shores, which means “this year every nest that is laid from day one has to be relocated north of 80th Street in Holmes Beach.”

Fox said there is no way to predict turtle numbers from year to year, but the relocation of all the nests south of 80th Street will certainly add to volunteer workload.

“However, this is my 28th renourishment project, so we are very experienced,” she said. “This will mean every home and business along the Gulf side in the city of Anna Maria will have extra nests placed in front of their properties. It’s more important than ever to ensure all lights in this area be 100 percent in compliance with the city codes.”

While numbers are difficult to predict, the leatherback turtle season in other areas of the state are already heavier than expected, Fox said.

“We are still a few months away from loggerhead nesting season, but if this is any indication of what we can expect for our season, it may be another banner year,” she said.

Fox said AMITW is stepping up education on birds this year. Since incorporating shorebird nesting into the program, she said sees benefit to turtle season, as well.

“We are planning some beach talks and have created new handouts,” she said. “We also have partnered up with Manatee Audubon for more beach stewarding programs on the weekends, not just holidays.”

Fox said thanks to last year’s record season, volunteers are braced for a busy season and the added workload.

“We will need to work faster and harder in the morning to get the job done,” she said. “Our team of volunteers is top notch and our work has been recognized as being among the top programs from South Carolina to the Texas coastline by U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”

Fox said her volunteers can not only handle the added burden of relocating nests this year, “but we are welcoming the challenge.”

BB commissioner calls for safety action at S curve

At a March 19 Bradenton Beach department head meeting, Commissioner Jan Vosburgh called for action on the city’s long-time safety concerns at the S curve on Gulf Drive near 12th Street South.

Vosburgh said she is working with the Florida Department of Transportation to attain a caution light at the blind spot in the middle of the S curve.

There are currently two caution lights before entering the S curve, but they are set back several dozen feet along with posted yellow 25-mph signs.

Commissioners have fielded multiple complaints about speeding through the S curve and several near misses have been reported of pedestrians attempting to cross Gulf Drive near the portion of the S curve on 12th Street.

Vosburgh said there is some interest from DOT, but that no substantial progress has been made to garner a commitment for action.

Police Chief Sam Speciale said his units often run radar near the S curve, and already has planned more radar time for his patrol units.

“The problem is that people think they can just walk into the street and cars have to yield,” said Speciale.

Vosburgh said the blind spot is dangerous, “and someone is going to get killed there.”

Speciale said DOT is considering a speed change on Gulf Drive beginning immediately off the exit of the Cortez Bridge.

The current speed is 45 mph all the way to the S curve, “and people aren’t slowing down to 25 by the time they get there,” he said.

“We want to get them to go from 45, to 35, to 25,” he said.

Vosburgh said she’s heard the same discussion from DOT and feels that may be the direction they are moving but, in the meantime, she would like the city to do what it can to prevent a potential tragedy.

Commissioner Ric Gatehouse said the problem exists because the island plays host to people from other states.

“People come down from up north and, in their states, pedestrians have the right of way at all times,” he said. “It’s not that way here in Florida.”

Mayor John Shaughnessy said the responsibility is with drivers and pedestrians, but especially pedestrians since they would be on the losing end of a crash.

“Pedestrians have to be alert, too,” he said. “We put a sidewalk in and people are still walking on the road. We have crosswalks that people don’t use. They cross the street without even looking both ways.”

Speciale reaffirmed that he would step up radar patrols in the area of the S curve to ensure traffic slows down. He previously indicated he would park an empty decoy car in the area in hopes to slow people down.

‘Cash cow’ needs more than words, BIEO agrees

Holmes Beach Commissioner Jean Peelen is tired of seeing the virtues of Anna Maria Island and its beaches displayed in just about every advertisement and website about the Bradenton area.

She’s not really tired of the advertisements, they’re great for tourism, she said. She’s just tired of the island serving as the “cash cow for the entire county, yet we have very little to say about the money,” she said at the March 20 meeting of the Coalition of Barrier Island Elected Officials March 20 at Anna Maria City Hall.

Peelen also serves on the Manatee County Tourist Development Council, a nine-member board that also includes islanders Ed Chiles, David Teitelbaum and Barbara Rodocker and is chaired by County Commissioner Carol Whitmore of Holmes Beach.

Peelen told BIEO members they need to present a united front and either an environmental or recreational plan to the Manatee Board of County Commissioners and the TDC to gain funding from the resort tax, which is paid in large part by visitors to the barrier islands.

The resort tax, often called the bed tax, is the 5 percent tax collected by the county on accommodation rentals longer than six months.

Holmes Beach Commissioner David Zaccagnino, who said he has attended most county commission meetings the past year, said whenever he asks for funding for Holmes Beach, he’s asked what specific project does he have.

“The only resort tax money we get back is beach renourishment funds and that only happens once every five to eight years,” he observed.

The resort tax, which brought in $8.1 million in fiscal year 2011-12 to Manatee County, helps fund the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors budget and its advertising campaigns, the Bradenton Convention Center, the Powel Crosley Mansion, McKechnie Field and the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training facility, among other projects.

“I don’t see any island projects on that list,” Peelen said.

Peelen proposed an island bicycle path, and Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn suggested the BIEO should go to the county commission or the TDC “en masse with a detailed plan of what we want to do, including drawings and engineers reports. They want to see solidarity, a plan and a need,” she said.

SueLynn also said there’s a good chance the bike path might meet the criteria for funding from the BP oil spill settlement. Charlie Hunsicker, director of natural resources for Manatee County, has said lawyers for the five Gulf Coast states have told him Manatee County can expect $4 billion-$19 billion as a settlement.

The funds can only be used for environmental or public recreation projects and Hunsicker is charged with preparing the final list for commission approval.

“Whatever we do, we do it together and we go with a detailed plan to either the commission, the TDC or Hunsicker,” said Peelen, who suggested the bike path from Bean Point to Coquina Beach, then over the Longboat Pass Bridge to connect with Longboat Key’s bicycle path.

“We need artist drawings, engineers or public works officials to show us the weak points and discuss the path mixture. And we need help with a crosswalk,” Peelen said. Surely there must be some experts in these fields on the island, she added.

SueLynn said this is the type of project the county wants to see before it considers any funding.

Peelen said if all the island cities support the bike trail, the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization might get behind the effort. Although the MPO might not have immediate funding, its stated support for an environmentally friendly project that cuts down on transportation could be effective in gaining either county commission or TDC funding.

Officials agreed to do some homework to put details on paper for the bicycle path and report back at the April xx BIEO meeting.

Zaccagnino also suggested that as many BIEO members as possible attend county commission meetings, particularly when an island or Longboat Key issue is on the agenda.

In other business, members discussed county administrator Ed Hunzeker’s 26/13 Plan to reduce property taxes throughout the county and have the cost of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office shared more by residents in unincorporated areas of the county than cities with their own police forces. Some portion of municipal property taxes would still support the MCSO.

Hunzeker plans a series of public forums throughout the county leading up to a June 17 vote on a half-cent sales-tax increase to fund his plan.

Zaccagnino also discussed HB 838, the bill that allows Florida homeowners to rent their property. The bill came as a surprise to many elected officials when passed in 2011. Zaccagnino said he talked with state Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who told him the best chance to change the law is to lobby legislators before the 2014 session.

The next BIEO meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Bradenton Beach City Hall, 107 Gulf Drive N.

Holmes Beach to review use of city field

Holmes Beach commissioners at their March 21 work session agreed with a suggestion by Mayor Carmel Monti to take a look at how city property is rented.

He said he thought the city field might be “over-used” by nonprofit organizations and he questioned how much of the profits go to nonprofits. Some nonprofits might be used as a front for a business operation in an attempt to gain a reduced permit fee.

Commissioner Judy Titsworth, whose grandfather, John Holmes Sr., was a contributor of city lands where now there is a library, fire station, baseball park, soccer field, public works and city hall, said the original intent of the donation was for public recreation, not solely for nonprofits.

“It’s supposed to be for recreation, but now we’ve put a bandstand there and we are the worst neighbors of all. We need to be considerate of our neighbors,” she said.

Commission Chair Jean Peelen said she looked at the city’s ordinance and it requires the nonprofit post a sign stating how much of the proceeds are going to the nonprofit. She said she’s never seen such a sign at any of the recent events.

“But, is it any of our business how much the nonprofit gets?” she asked.

Monti was concerned any business could use a nonprofit as a front organization to reserve the field for an event.

He noted that someone requested use of the field in May for a musical festival to raise funds for a young woman who was injured in an accident.

Commissioners agreed it’s up to the mayor to approve or deny an application for use of the field.

Too many “crap shows” and other events are renting the field for the $250 price, which is too cheap, Commissioner Marvin Grossman said.

Monti said he would ask city staff to have the applicant provide proof an organization is a nonprofit before approving further applications to use the field. He said he also would consider asking for an accounting of how much vendors take in and how much is given to the sponsoring nonprofit.

He said he wanted to be sure the nonprofits are not being used as front organizations for money-making ventures.

Peelen pointed out that the nonprofit is supposed to get 100 percent of the profit made from the sale of alcohol, according to state alcohol license regulations.

If alcohol sales are part of the event, the fee increases to $500, although the commission can waive the fee.

Commissioner Pat Morton and other commissioners were concerned that events damage the soccer field. Some events require setting up equipment a day in advance and use city electricity.

Titsworth wondered if some event planners are taking advantage of the city’s generosity for events that would cost thousands of dollars at another venue.

City attorney Patricia Petruff said if the mayor denies an application, the applicant can appeal to the commission, but there’s nothing in the regulations that says the city has to approve all uses of the city field.

Monti said he would direct staff to alert him of an application that “just doesn’t look right,” noting that use of the field is supposed to be for the benefit of residents of Holmes Beach.

In other business, Grossman expressed concern about the amount of parking required of restaurants. He said the city used to require one space for every three seats, but changed that several years ago to one space for every five seats. He envisions more restaurants may open in the city, creating a parking problem for residents and visitors.

“I don’t want to take away from the restaurants we have now, I just want to make it difficult for new restaurants to come in and create a major parking problem,” Grossman said.

Commissioners agreed to visit the parking issue at a future work session.

BB police chief: Morris death investigation winding down

Bradenton Beach Police Chief Sam Speciale said March 19 that the investigation into the 2009 death of Sheena Morris, 22, is “winding down.”

Speciale said the assisting Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents, as well as BBPD Lt. Lenard Diaz are in the process of completing the FDLE SMART panel recommendations issued in September 2012.

The recommendations came out of a SMART panel review of the BBPD investigation after years of publicly campaigning for a new investigation by Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn.

Morris was found hanging on her dog’s leash in the shower of her BridgeWalk Resort motel room on Bridge Street on New Year’s Day.

The case was ruled a suicide, but Osborn hired a forensic pathologist who convinced District 12 Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega to change the cause of death to undetermined in 2011 based on the expert’s opinion that crime scene photos showed the hanging may have been staged.

The forensic specialist, Dr. Michael Berkland has since been discredited with information he was twice fired from medical examiner duties, and an arrest late last year when police found human organs being stored in household containers in a storage unit rented by Berkland.

Berkland allegedly harvested brains, hearts, lungs and other organs from funeral homes where he conducted private autopsies.

FDLE found no wrongdoing in the BBPD investigation, but recommended the department close some loopholes in the case.

The investigation stalled in November when Osborn refused to comply with a BBPD request to release Morris’ computer, cell phone and medical records.

Osborn relented and released the materials after receiving a Dec. 3 letter from FDLE Special Agent in Charge John Burke outlining the importance of her cooperation.

Speciale said it was the delay in receiving those materials that delayed the investigation.

“FDLE didn’t give us a timeline for their IT forensic team to go through those materials,” he said. “We knew it would take awhile, but we are getting close to the end. When that happens, we’ll put all the information together and send it over to the state attorney’s office for its final conclusion.”

Speciale will not comment on the investigation, but has consistently maintained confidence in Diaz’s conclusions and stands behind the initial ruling of suicide.

Attempt to elude police lands Bradenton man in jail

A 28-year-old Bradenton man faces a felony attempting to elude law enforcement charge after trying to escape a March 16 traffic stop on a motorcycle.

According to the probable cause affidavit, a Holmes Beach police officer initiated a traffic stop on Joel Freed while he was riding a motorcycle in the 2900 block of Avenue C.

Freed ignored the lights and sirens behind him and allegedly increased speed while driving in and out of heavy traffic.

The officer reported speeds never went in excess of 50 mph, however.

Additional law enforcement units were contacted and managed to contain Freed, who eventually stopped the motorcycle and surrendered.

According to the report, Freed does not have a motorcycle endorsed driver’s license.

He was charged with misdemeanor operating a motorcycle without a license and felony attempting to elude law enforcement.

Freed allegedly admitted to police that he was attempting to get away.

He was booked into the Manatee County jail on $1,620 bond. He was scheduled to be arraigned at 9 a.m. Friday, April 12, at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

According to jail records, Freed posted bond March 17 and was released. Court records indicate a list of troubles with the law dating back to 2005.

Police seek information on armed robbery

Police are seeking information on an armed robbery suspect described as a male about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing about 250 pounds.

A 30-year-old Holmes Beach man was walking home March 18 in the 11300 block of Cortez Road West, in Bradenton, at 11:40 p.m. when a vehicle passed him by.

The vehicle then made a U-turn and stopped in front of the victim. A masked man armed with a handgun exited the vehicle and pointed the gun at the victim, demanding all of his belongings.

The suspect then fled with the man’s belongings in an unknown-make sedan, dark in color, in an eastward direction.

Anyone with information about this case is asked to call the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office at 941-747-3011 or Crime Stoppers at 866-634-8477.

Island roadwatch

A Florida Department of Transportation press release said maintenance work on the Anna Maria Island Bridge on State Road 64/Manatee Avenue will begin the first week of April. A majority of the repair work will take place below the road service at the water level and below the water surface.

Some nighttime lane closures with a flagging operation should be expected, the release said.

The maintenance work will be conducted Monday through Friday. The project is expected to wrap up by the end of summer, the DOT said.

Motorists are advised to use caution when workers and flaggers are present.

Ex-Islander denies cooking wife, sentenced to 15-years-to-life

A Lomita chef who killed his wife and boiled her body in his restaurant’s kitchen was sentenced March 22 to spend 15 years to life in prison, moments after he declared “I didn’t cook my wife” and that nobody misses her more than him.

David Viens, 49, convicted of second-degree murder in September for killing his 39-year-old wife, Dawn, was sentenced after he gave a rambling 45-minute presentation before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to explain why his trial attorney poorly represented him and why he should get a another chance to testify in his own defense.

He did not take the stand during his trial based on his attorney’s advice. Viens referred to that decision as “retarded. “

“I loved my wife,” Viens said. “I didn’t cook my wife.”

Judge Rand Rubin rejected Viens’ attempt for a new trial and sentenced him to the state-mandated term for second-degree murder. Viens confessed to his daughter, his girlfriend and twice to detectives investigating the disappearance and murder of Dawn Viens, who was last seen Oct. 18, 2009. Her remains have never been found.

Viens claimed his wife died accidentally after he taped her mouth shut with duct tape because she was making too much noise as he was trying to sleep. His defense attorney, Fred McCurry, told jurors that Viens fell asleep and awakened to find his wife dead. Viens told his daughter he threw her body in the trash.

After Viens jumped from a Rancho Palos Verdes cliff on Feb. 23, 2011, when a Daily Breeze article called him a “person of interest” in his wife’s disappearance and death, Viens confessed to detectives in his hospital room that he wrapped duct tape over her mouth, awakened to find her dead and cooked her body in his kitchen at the Thyme Contemporary Cafe. He said he disposed of her remains in his grease trap and stashed her skull in his mother’s attic in Lomita. It was never found.

Viens, still in a wheelchair, said in court March 22 that he did not remember his confessions, including one that occurred after he underwent 12 hours of surgery to repair broken bones suffered in his jump. He said information about his condition should have been presented to the jury during his trial but was not. He vowed to appeal his conviction.

“I’m hallucinating,” he said. “I had no idea I had undergone two major surgeries.” I don’t remember meeting these guys except one time in my driveway. “

Prosecutors had sought a first-degree murder conviction against Viens, saying he killed his wife because she stole $300 from their restaurant. Dawn Viens, in fact, had been hiding money she received as tips while working in the Narbonne Avenue restaurant because she feared her husband was about to leave her.

A witness testified during his trial that Viens vowed to “kill the bitch” over the theft. She was never seen again. But McCurry, Viens attorney, argued that Viens killed his wife accidentally and did not intend the duct tape over her mouth to kill her. His argument succeeded in reducing the conviction to second-degree murder.

But that didn’t satisfy Viens, who said March 22 his attorney should have presented more evidence about his medical condition and allowed him to testify. During the trial, Viens stood from his wheelchair and objected when his attorney rested their case.

“His telling me not to testify was retarded,” Viens said. If he could have a new trial, Viens added, he would testify and take a lie detector test “to prove what really happened,” not stories that deputy District Attorney Deborah Brazil “sold” the judge and the jury.

“I think she’s afraid to face me in trial,” Viens said. “I would represent myself.”

Viens said Brazil painted an unfair picture of him for the jury, portraying him as a man who cooked his wife for four days.

“It never happened,” he said.

Friends reported Dawn Viens missing in November 2009. Viens told them she had walked away when he demanded she go into drug rehab. A friend, Karen Patterson, said she received text messages from her phone indicating she was safe, but Dawn Viens’ nickname was misspelled. Viens’ daughter testified during the trial that she placed at least one of the texts.

For months, David Viens — who served prison time for drug offenses in Florida and Vermont before coming to California — refused to post a missing person flier or conduct an interview. But in April 2010, he told the Daily Breeze that “I loved my wife” and believed she would return home after ski season. By that time, Viens had already taken on a new girlfriend, who moved into his house and into Dawn Viens’ hostess job at the eatery.

In August 2010, homicide detectives took over the case, saying they found blood spatter in the house Viens once shared with his wife. When that information was reported in the Daily Breeze, Viens purchased the newspaper, confessed to his girlfriend, drove to Point Vicente and jumped.

In court March 22, Viens said he “fell” from the cliff.

During her victim impact statement to the court, Dayna Papin, Dawn Viens’ sister, said she had loved her sister’s husband like a father, but did not feel sympathy for him. She doubted her family can find closure.

“As I sat here the last hour listening, I learned I will not have any peace for a very long time,” Papin said. “I think he’s made it pretty clear to all of us he is going to continue to fight for his freedom. “

Viens, who looked at her as she talked, quickly responded: “Nobody loved Dawn Marie Viens more than I did, or misses her more. I lied to police out of fear. My life’s been a mess ever since. I’m sorry Dayna.”

He then slammed his hand on the table in front of him.

Re-published by The Islander and NewsManatee.com news partner with permission.

Editor’s note: David and Dawn Viens resided in Holmes Beach and operated the Beach City Market and Grill in Bradenton Beach 2002-05 before a drug raid sent David Viens to jail and Dawn Viens moved from the community.