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Date of Issue: November 24, 2005

CART concepts to save resorts from condo conversions progressing

The good news is that resorts on Anna Maria Island received support on proposals to curb runaway taxes from several different fronts last week.

The bad news is that the proposals are somewhat groundbreaking and their legality has to be checked.

That was the word from supporters of the Coalition Against Runaway Taxation, a group formed on the Island last year to fight the growing "condominimization" of small motels and hotels on the Island.

Some of the "mom-and-pop" resorts, faced with incredible tax hikes due to legislation that requires properties be assessed at the highest and best use - usually condominiums - have indeed been sold and turned into condos. Many Islanders have expressed fear that the conversions will cause the popular Island ambiance to be lost.

Resorts with an estimated 138 rooms are currently for sale, CART officials have said, which represents 24 percent of the Island's hotel units.

CART officials have produced data that indicate that hotels and motels on the Island have seen a 102-percent tax increase from 2001 to 2005.

Restaurants are also feeling the pinch of higher taxes. As an example, the Sandbar restaurant in Anna Maria City has seen a 111-percent increase in taxes from 2001 to 2004.

CART President Don Schroder appeared before both the Manatee County Commission and the area Legislative delegation last week to plead the group's case and seek relief.

Proposed is a form of a grant that would hold tax increases to no more than 3 percent - generally, the cost of living increase - for five years. "We need immediate relief," Schroder said of the plan.

The problem is that the proposal is somewhat radical in its scope and for the most part unprecedented in the state. County commissioners embraced the concept, and directed staff to research similar proposals elsewhere as well as contact the state attorney general to solicit an opinion on the matter.

Schroder also presented the problem to the area legislative delegation last week. His goal with the group of Tallahassee lawmakers was to change state law to allow taxes on resort properties to be levied as to their current use rather than the "highest and best" category.

Property away from the coastline is often categorized as agricultural in nature and taxed accordingly, Schroder said. But that property oftentimes is actually destined for homesites, shopping malls or other developments. Why should exemptions be made on agricultural-home properties out east when no such exemption is levied on coastal areas? Schroder asked.

"They are protected," he said. "We just want to be taxed on our current use."

Lawmakers were cordial but mostly silent on the changes offered by CART, Schroder said. However, he has been able to entice the Florida Chamber of Commerce to include CART's proposal into its annual legislative program for the 2006 session, and he's hopeful that something can be resolved in Tallahassee.

Skyrocketing tax rates for coastal resort communities are a statewide concern, Schroder said. It's also a concern to the local pocketbooks.

He said that studies have indicated that for every dollar spent in a hotel or motel room, another $3 is spent in the community by visitors for food and sundries. Based on the number of motel rooms that have converted to condos in Manatee County in the past few years, about $1 billion in revenue has been lost, Schroder said.

"We are light years ahead of where we were when we started," Schroder said of last week's meetings.