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Date of Issue: March 17, 2005

Tax 'hurricane' could devastate Island

Anna Maria Island was spared the brunt of four major hurricanes this past summer, but those were natural disasters. The real threat could be unnatural.

According to many Island business owners, they're not likely to survive the tax hurricane that could eventually force them out of business (The Islander, Sept. 15, 29).

The disgruntled owners met met last Thursday at Holmes Beach City Hall to protest their increasing taxable property valuations from Manatee County Property Appraiser Charles Hackney.

The meeting was chaired by Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce President Don Schroder, who said he and the chamber have become increasingly concerned recently that rising taxes are driving out the small business owners. He called the meeting in hopes of coming up with some solutions, rather than just name-calling and rhetoric.

But business owners were frustrated and scared, and vented most of their anger on Hackney and his office.

"This is David versus Goliath," said Siam Gardens Resort owner Kent Davis, whose taxes went up 70 percent this year. "They will tax us to death until we are out of business, then tax us until they own the business."

The 14-unit White Sands resort has been in the Gerry family for years, said Ken Gerry. But with an 83-percent tax hike this year on top of the 33 percent last year, "It's not going to be in our family long. It's time to look at converting to condominiums."

Barry Messer, who owns the Island West resort and rental property on Longboat Key, said his tax bill climbed from $40,000 to $108,000 on his Longboat property.

"We're a family business," he said, but if the taxes keep climbing, they won't be for long. "I'm going to have to sell because we won't be able to afford to keep it," he predicted.

Barb Yeager of the White Egret shops said she and her husband were "scared" of higher taxes. "I can't pass on these higher costs to my customers. Soon, I'm going to have no choice but to sell."

Sabine Musil-Buehler, owner of Haley's Motel, wondered how her property, which is not even beachfront, could be valued at $185 per square foot, while the Bridgewalk Resort is valued at only $60 per square foot. Maybe it is time to convert to condominiums, she said.

"And we can't break even at that figure," responded Bridgewalk owner Barbara Rodocker, who supported the meeting, but suggested it was time for action, not just talk.

Davis brought up a host of what he considered inequities in property values and asked Schroder if he could organize a meeting with Hackney to discuss Island property values.

Hackney agreed to meet with the group in the near future, but it could be a case of preaching to the choir.

"I understand their frustration, and I'll be happy to meet with them, but Florida by law is a market value state. The laws dictate that we value on what similar properties sell for," he observed. The average property sale on the Island has risen 25 percent each of the past four years. Ultimately, that means property values are doubling every four years at that rate.

His office is governed and audited by the Florida Department of Revenue and any changes to the valuation system must come through a constitutional amendment through either the legislature or a citizen's initiative, he said.

Then we'll change the law, said Nigel Brown, owner of Anna Maria Beach Cottages and co-chairman of the meeting.

We'd better, said Schroder. "If we don't get tax relief, none of us will be here in five years."

Brown said other states, such as California, Oregon and Iowa, have instituted tax relief for property owners, so it can be done.

He agreed to search for an "expert consultant" to give the group a presentation, including costs, for a statewide initiative. Brown will also contact other Florida beachfront communities to see if they are having similar problems.

Schroder noted that tax relief needs the backing of state legislators, and he hopes to have a meeting with State Rep. Bill Galvano and State Sen. Mike Bennett before Oct. 25, when the two are scheduled to speak on the Island about current and upcoming legislative issues.

The "Concerned Citizens for Tax Abatement" group will meet again at 5 p.m. Oct. 14 at the Holmes Beach City Hall if the room is available, said Schroder. Otherwise, the group will meet Oct. 25, hopefully with Galvano and Bennett. The meeting is open to anyone, not just chamber members, he added.

He also appealed for calm and reason in discussing the issue with Hackney and legislators. "We need to appear business-like in dealing with the issues and the people involved." He urged anyone interested in helping organize the group to come to the meeting and volunteer.

Bayview Plaza considers closing
Taxes have risen so high on the Island that the owners of the Bayview Plaza in Anna Maria have advised tenants all lease contracts will become month-to-month leases on expiration.

AMI Holdings Inc. said in a Sept. 22 letter to tenants that even after the Manatee County Property Appraiser's Office made "some concessions" on the value of Bayview Plaza, overall taxes made the property "not even close to our break-even point." The company did say it would keep rental rates at current levels until December, by which time it should have a final determination on property taxes and new rates for 2005.

AMI had noted in an Aug. 22 letter to Bayview tenants that the MCPAO has indicated that increased costs should be passed on to the tenants. That would represent an increase of $9.25 per square foot, "which is not feasible for most tenants, since this is Anna Maria, not St. Armands Circle."

The company also said at that time that future options for the property include converting the plaza into residential lots/apartments, or selling the units to the tenants. Because the property is zoned commercial, however, residential units would be excluded from that location.

Anna Maria Mayor SueLynn said she's concerned that rising taxable property values will drive the "mom and pop" businesses in her city and throughout the Island out of business, and straight into the arms of the condominium and single-family home developers.

"It's not really a city government issue," she noted, "but I would just hate for us to lose our character. I'm worried about the trend. We are losing mom and pop businesses around the Island to developers, but with the rising values and taxes, the only option for many people is to convert to residences or condominiums."