Vol 7 No. 41 - July 4, 2007

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Amendment covers more than homestead

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper More pines to be cut on Causeway

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Island set for fireworks

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper New witness in heron case

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Public input sought on drainage project

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Final details going into pier

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper FDOT declines to lower bridge speed limit

Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper Tax panel may affect new law




Amendment covers more than homestead

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

If Florida voters pass the proposed Constitutional amendment in January that was included in last month’s tax reform law, they will be voting on more than just their choice of homestead exemptions.

What voters may not notice in the proposal is that a vote for the amendment also means a vote for higher exemptions for low-income senior citizens, lower working waterfront assessments, lower affordable housing assessments and higher exemptions on tangible personal property.

While a citizen’s initiative for a proposed Constitutional amendment can only address one subject, the Legislature can propose an amendment on more than one subject, and it did.

Part of the new law covering municipal tax rate rollbacks and caps on future property tax revenues was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist last month. But the other section, which he also approved, ultimately depends on Florida voters.

The main issue in the proposed Constitutional amendment provision would replace the 1992 Save Our Homes homestead exemption with a new super homestead exemption. Save our homes provides a $25,000 exemption for Homesteaded property owners and it caps increases in the taxable value of a home at 3 percent. The new plan would exempt 75 percent of the first $200,000 of a home's taxable value from taxes, with a minimum exemption of $50,000. Values between $200,000 and $500,000 would be reduced by an additional 15 percent exemption. Homes valued at $500,000 or more would get maximum exemptions of $195,000.

"The super exemption is not going to help anybody out there," predicts Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, explaining that area property values have risen so high that the maximum exemption of $195,000 is not high enough.

"People who are homesteaded need to pay attention to that when they make their choice," she said.

But homestead exemptions are not all that will require a voter’s attention in the proposed amendment.

Low-income senior exemption

Under the proposed amendment, low-income seniors 65 years of age and over would be guaranteed an increased minimum exemption of $100,000 instead of the current $50,000, which is already double the Save Our Homes exemption rate.

The issue could be the deciding factor for some elderly voters who own homesteaded property.

The existing Low Income Senior Homestead Exemption was approved by voters in 1998 as an amendment to the Florida Constitution, allowing counties and municipalities to grant additional homestead exemptions to low income seniors who meet income guidelines. For 2007, the total household adjusted gross income must be less than $24,214 to qualify.

Qualified residents in Anna Maria, Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach and Longboat Key are entitled to exemption from city millage on $25,000 of assessed value in addition to their standard homestead exemption of $25,000, according to the Manatee County Property Appraiser’s office.

That $50,000 exemption would become $100,000 under the new proposal.

Working waterfronts

The proposed amendment also would allow the Legislature to assess working waterfront properties – defined as land used exclusively for commercial fishing or public land used predominantly for water-dependent activities or public access to the water – and affordable housing properties at less than fair market value.

Unfortunately for owners of Island hotels and motels, accommodations were not included in the definition of working waterfronts, even though many are located directly on the beachfront or bayfront, said Don Schroder of the Anna Maria Island-based Coalition Against Runaway Taxation (CART).
"It just covers marinas, boatyards and public land with direct access to the water," he said. "Hotels and motels should be considered as working waterfront properties."

The working waterfront provision of the proposed amendment would help the fishing village of Cortez, von Hahmann’s home, she said.

"I think it helps them, but it doesn’t help the motels and hotels on the beach. They left out those people," she agreed.

Waterfront accommodations owners can still take advantage of a relatively new Manatee County ordinance to defer their property taxes, but it is not a tax cut. They eventually have to pay their deferred taxes when they sell the property, she said.

Tangible personal property

The proposed amendment also would allow the Legislature to grant small business owners a minimum exemption of $25,000 on tangible personal property.

But the exemption will be more helpful to large corporations than to Island businesses, Schroder said.

"Most of the businesses here are mom and pop operations," he said.

CART is unhappy with the entire tax reform package, Schroder said, adding that it does not offer much relief to non-homesteaded property owners. It also ignores the issues of the assessment criteria of highest and best use," which CART calls inequitable, "and portability of the Save Our Homes Homestead exemption.

Portability is a dead issue, von Hahmann said, citing studies that deemed it an unconstitutional violation of the right to travel. But other tax relief for homesteaded property owners is built into the proposed amendment, she said.

"If I choose to leave my home, which has deferred value in it, and move into a house in town, I will automatically get the super exemption on the new home," she said.

If the amendment passes, people who purchase homes on or after Jan. 1, 2008 will not have the option of taking the Save Our Homes exemption, although existing homeowners will be able to choose between Save Our Homes and the super exemption.

The proposed Constitutional amendment will appear on the Jan. 29, 2008 ballot. Sixty percent voter approval is required for passage.

More pines to be cut on Causeway

By Pat Copeland
sun staff writer

ustralian pines on the north side of the Palma Sola Causeway will be topped by FPL because they are endangering power lines.

Ingrid McClellan, of Keep Manatee Beautiful, told the Palma Sola Scenic Highway committee that once the pines are topped, a contractor would remove the remainder.

Keith Bettcher, Manatee County conservation lands administrator, said there are clusters of Australian pines west of Perico Bayou that should be removed, but they are too big and it would be too costly for the county to remove them.

McClellan said she would ask FPL officials if the company could top the pines to 18 feet.

Bettcher reported that all of the Brazilian peppers have been removed and the new growth treated with herbicide. However, he said there must be follow-up treatment or plants will sprout up again.

Bob Cranford, of the Florida Department of Transportation, said DOT could take over the spraying of the peppers. Bettcher said the scenic highway group could apply for a maintenance grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fund the spraying.

Committee Chair John Ormando reported that he has received all the permits for the small boat ramp to be built on the south side of the Causeway and east of the area where the former Bongo’s restaurant stood.

"We’ve had some dialogue that even though the city made out the grant for it, the ultimate operation and maintenance should be in the county," Ormando said. "The city does not own or operate one boat ramp in the city."

He suggested having an interlocal agreement with the county and County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann said she would work on it.

McClellan reported other scenic highway groups have more members who are government employees and private citizens rather than elected officials, like this group. She suggested that at the next meeting, members discuss membership criteria and develop bylaws.

Island set for fireworks

There’s no need to leave the Island to enjoy fireworks. The big show is Tuesday, July 3, at the BeachHouse restaurant, 200 Gulf Drive N., Bradenton Beach. Smaller fireworks will be shot from the beach and larger ones will be launched from a barge in the Gulf.

On Wednesday, July 4, at 9:15 p.m., the Sandbar restaurant at 100 Spring Ave., Anna Maria, will launch fireworks from the beach. There is no charge to watch either of the shows from the beach.

Don’t forget to use the free trolleys, which will be running late, to avoid searching for a parking spot.


New witness in heron case

By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer

BRADENTON BEACH – A new witness in the Coquina night heron case has told investigators she saw what may have been heron eggs on the ground the same day the county cleared Australian pines at the park.

"A lady has stepped forward to report that she saw some eggs near the shoreline on the day the Australian pine trees were cut at Coquina Beach," said Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission Field Lt. Mike Frantz. "We aren’t sure if they’re heron eggs. One of our scientists is checking on it, but he did say that he doesn’t think they are night heron eggs. We just aren’t sure."

Frantz is responsible for investigating a complaint filed by Barbara Hines, of Holmes Beach. Hines alleges that as many as 30 active night heron nests were destroyed while the county parks and recreation department cleared 65 Australian pine trees from the parking area of Coquina Beach.

The trees were cleared as a gang control measure after a shooting incident there on Easter Sunday. The county’s public safety committee believes that reconfiguring the parking lot will help control gang activity.

Hines filed a formal complaint after witnessing the felling of the trees.

"I couldn’t get anyone to listen to me," she said. "I know there were active nests there. I saw the night herons carrying nesting materials there, and I saw babies in the nests."

Hines said county and law enforcement personnel would not allow her to approach the trees closely enough to photograph the babies and the nests. Hines did snap several pictures of bulldozers felling trees with obvious nests in them. Whether or not those nests were active is the sticking point.

An active nest is any nest with eggs or baby birds still present, according to FWC biologist Nancy Douglas.

It’s against state and federal law to take an active night heron nest. The birds are a protected species under the Migratory Bird Act.

Frantz interviewed Karen Cunningham, a Bradenton Beach resident who uses the Coquina Beach area for her daily run.

"I told him that I saw a lot of nesting activity there," she said. "I saw a lot of adult night herons carrying nesting material into the trees."

Cunningham, who owns and operates Anna Maria Island House in Bradenton Beach, said she couldn’t swear that any of the trees taken down contained active nests because she wasn’t there when the trees were felled.

"I wasn’t there that day, so I can’t say absolutely that any active nests were destroyed," she said.

Cunningham did say, however, that she believes active nests were probably taken.

Lt. Frantz said it’s difficult to make charges stick when there is no documentary evidence. He said he’s talked to everyone involved, including the county’s project manager, Tom Yarger.

"As soon as we determine whether or not the eggs this lady saw were from night herons, I can wrap up this investigation," he said. "It’s unfortunate that this happened."

Frantz was not in his office and was not able to provide the name of the new witness. He said he expects his investigation to conclude by late next week.

Even if Hines complaint isn’t forwarded to the state attorney’s office for further action, Frantz said FWC would be sending a letter to Manatee County advising that it needs to have policies in place to protect nesting birds.


Public input sought on drainage project

By Laurie Krosney
sun staff writer

ANNA MARIA — Members of the city commission and the capital improvement advisory committee hope it’s a new day and that residents in the Crescent-Gulf-Willow drainage basin will endorse a large drainage project that includes Spring Avenue.

"I hope the people who live here will be excited about the project and will keep their minds open so they can hear what’s being proposed," said City Commissioner Dale Woodland.

Woodland worked closely with City Engineer Tom Wilcox to get the project funded. Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District) and SWIMS (Surface Water Improvement Management Systems) will pay half of the $270,000 project cost. The city will pay its half from a line of credit secured last year.

The city got a Swiftmud grant in the late 1990s to do a drainage project on Spring Avenue. The residents in that area were up in arms over deep ditches in front of their houses. Ultimately, the money was sent back to Swiftmud and the city paid to restore the street to the way it had been before the project began.

"This is a whole different project," Woodland said. "There will be no ditches along Spring. There will be wide swales in the alleyways behind the street to hold and clean the water before it gets dumped into the canals or bays. I hope people will come to the meeting with open minds and listen to what’s proposed and share their input."

Design work on the project is by no means complete.

"We don’t want to come up with a final design until we hear from the public," Woodland said. "We want to hear what people have to say before we finalize anything."

The large project will drain water from a large area of the city that is bounded on the north by Pine Avenue and some areas just north of that street. To the west, the area encompasses the area from about halfway between Gulf Drive and the Gulf itself. Then to the south, it goes to about Maple before cutting back to the north. From there, the project will run between Willow and Chilson, up Maxine just to the east of the Community Center and over to South Bay Boulevard.

There is an aerial photo of the area to be covered on the city’s Web-site at www.cityofannamaria.com. That brings up the introductory page, which has information about the hearing. Click on the word "aerial" which is in blue type in the body of the text.

The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m., Tuesday, July 10, at Anna Maria City Hall.


Final details going into pier

By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer

BRADENTON BEACH – The work progresses on the city pier refurbishment and the city commissioners are making some final selections such as colors.

The commissioners were asked a couple of weeks ago for a decision on the cedar columns and trim in front of the restaurant. The choices are painting it white, staining it white or keeping it natural with a neutral stain for protection.

At the Bradenton Beach Pier Team meeting last Friday, project architect Tom O’Brien said painting it could cause problems because the fluids in the wood could cause the paint to bubble. He said staining it white would be better although there is a risk that the oils in the wood would leech through. He said the final choice of staining it a natural color would be a good one also.

Project manager Tom Edwards, from Southern Cross Contracting, said he needs a decision and Police Chief Sam Speciale said the commission’s next meeting was scheduled for Thursday., July 5. Edwards said that would be too late.

The meeting was noticed and there were two city commissioners present. When asked for a preference, Commissioner Bill Shearon said he preferred staining it white. Commissioner Janie Robertson said she preferred natural. Speciale said they should send the rest of the commissioners memos to ask their preferences.

After meeting in the Tingley Memorial Library, the group went to the job site to see the progress. Jeff Morgenstern said that the roof panels were being installed, the grease trap was being put into the ground, the drywall and insulation were going into the dockmaster’s office and electrical work was ongoing.

Doreen Russell, widow of "Rotten" Ralph Russell, inspected the site and said she was anxious to open. Edwards said it looked like they would likely be done in time for the restaurant to open on Labor Day, Sept. 3.



FDOT declines to lower bridge speed limit

By Tom Vaught
sun staff writer

Despite two fatal accidents within a year of each other on the Anna Maria Island Bridge, the Florida Department of Transportation will not lower the speed limit as requested by a county commissioner.

FDOT District One Traffic Operations Engineer L.K. Nandam sent a letter to Manatee County Commission Chairman Amy Stein dated June 28 informing her of the decision. County Commissioner Carol Whitmore made the request to lower the 50 mph limit on the bridge after two fatal accidents in which the vehicles involved went off the bridge and into the bay. Both accidents involved alcohol, which was a factor in FDOT’s decision.

"The fatal crashes along the bridge involved excessive speeds and the drivers were under the influence of alcohol," the letter said. Nandam also said that speed studies support the existing posted limit on the bridge.

The bridge is scheduled to be refurbished later this year and FDOT officials recently told a meeting of the Manatee County Community Safety Council that there is no money to add any safety features to the bridge in that project. Nandam touched on that and gave some history of the bridge in his letter.

He said that upgrading the geometry along the bridge would require replacing it, but that previous attempts to replace the bridge were met with public opposition.

Nandem said that the bridge is now being rehabilitated to add 15 years to the life of the structure, but that it could not hold the additional weight of a widened roadway for a safety lane.

In conclusion, Nandem’s letter said that the only safety improvements for the bridge are refurbished pavement markings and reflective markers along the center lane to delineate the travel lanes and curbs.

A week earlier, another engineer said they would also paint the first 10 feet of the eight-inch-high curbs on the outer edge of each lane from the end of the bridge to make them more visible.


Tax panel may affect new law

By Cindy Lane
sun staff writer

The property tax reform law passed last month by the Florida Legislature will not be the final word on taxes, even in the short term.

First, voters must decide the fate of the proposed Constitutional amendment on Jan. 29, 2008 that offers an alternative to the Save Our Homes amendment and affects low-income senior citizen exemptions, working waterfront assessments, affordable housing assessments and tangible personal property tax exemptions.

Then, in November 2008, another proposed Constitutional amendment could be placed on the ballot by the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission.

The 25-member commission, itself established by a Constitutional amendment, could impact taxes in two ways, said member and Bradenton businessman John McKay – by proposing a Constitutional amendment or by making recommendations to the Legislature.

The committee is in a fact-finding stage now and expects to issue its findings, whether recommendations or an amendment, a year from now, in time for the November 2008 election.

"It’s too early to predict if what we do will affect the (new) legislation," said McKay, a former president of the Florida Senate who wants to eliminate unfair exemptions from the state sales tax system.

When the commission met for the first time in 1990, it placed proposed Constitutional amendments on the ballot, he said, but was not responsible for the 1992 Save Our Homes amendment.

"Nobody could have prophesied the effect of Save Our Homes," he said.

The commission, which includes former legislators, business leaders, lawyers, educators, property appraisers and tax collectors, has authority over all types of state tax and budget issues, not just property taxes, spokeswoman Kathy Torian said.

According to the state Constitution, "The commission shall examine the state budgetary process, the revenue needs and expenditure processes of the state, the appropriateness of the tax structure of the state, and governmental productivity and efficiency," among other duties.

If the commission offers a proposed Constitutional amendment on the November 2008 ballot, it may be only one of several that voters have to decide.

Citizens groups including the Anna Maria Island-based Coalition Against Runaway Taxation (CART) have discussed taking their tax reform ideas directly to the people with their own proposed amendments.


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