PORT MANATEE -- Next year, the Manatee County Tax Collector will flow thousands of additional dollars to schools, fire services and other public uses when several previously untaxed and under taxed Port Manatee businesses start paying an overlooked obligation.
But first, the county gave all those businesses a pass on the current year's tax bills to make sure they got it right.
Millions of dollars in additional property value at Port Manatee will hit the tax rolls when tax payment notices go out in August. For some businesses at the port, the notice may be the first they've seen that will require them to write a check.
For the better part of two decades, a legal oversight caused the tax collector to undercharge or not charge at all a number of commercial businesses leasing property.
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Mark Johns, the director of appraisal services at the Manatee Property Appraiser's Office, said a jumble of incomplete or missing property descriptions and the reclassification in the 1990s of the port's tax status led to the oversight. The county appraiser's office had little hard data on what port
property was being leased to whom.
Without that information, the county's tax collector had no idea that some properties existed for taxing purposes.
"The port is no different than the guy who owns the mall," Johns said. "The port's a landlord. It passes the taxes directly to the tenants."
Now, $18.5 million in port property will be taxed. Johns said this is up to $10 million more property than was previously assessed. Total property value at the port is $57 million.
Had all the taxable properties been billed this year, tax revenue would have totaled more than $276,500, based on the county's current millage rates. Manatee County Schools would have received over $130,000.
The appraiser's office has not determined how much more revenue the increased property value will generate for the 2015-2016 tax year.
Classed as a special district, the port itself is exempt from taxation. But under a law on the books since the 1990s, businesses that lease land and other facilities from any Florida port are subject to county property taxes. The port rents space to about 20 lessees on its 1,100-acre property north of Palmetto. These companies rent everything from paved pad space to warehouses and offices.
Prior to the reclassification, the port was considered immune to property taxes, meaning no property use would have been taxed. Counties and the state's government still enjoy that status.
Port Manatee tenants not taxed or only partly taxed in the past include stevedore Kinder-Morgan, lumber products handler Arrow Terminals, American Cement Company, Florida Rock Industries and Gulf Stream Natural Gas, according to the Manatee County Appraiser's Office. Public records show that some tenants paid no property-related taxes in 2013, while others paid fire district assessments or property taxes.
For the current tax year, the appraiser's and tax collector's offices chose to send no tax bills at all to companies leasing at the port. The two offices were still trying to determine who was leasing what when the 2015 tax bills came out last November.
"Until we got it all cleaned up and right, we decided out of a sense of fairness not to charge anyone," Johns said.
The change in tax status may come as a surprise to some companies leasing port land and facilities. Chris Stockton, a spokesman with Kinder-Morgan, said his company does not yet have enough information to assess the impact of the county's action.
"We're not aware of any tax change and can't comment until we see a new assessment," he said.
Johns, who previously worked in another Florida county with a port, discovered the taxing mistake a few months after being hired by the assessor's office two years ago. It took 18 months to acquire leases from the port, map its leased properties and coordinate a new tax list with attorneys representing the port, Manatee County School District, the county and the North River Fire District.
By the end, 20 of the total of 32 tax parcels at the port were found to be subject to property taxes.
Discrepancy catches attention
The taxing issue surfaced publicly at two recent Manatee County Port Authority meetings when county resident Glen Gibellina asked authority members why the port had failed to ensure tax collection from its lessees. Port Chairwoman Carol Whitmore told Gibellina that the issue had been rectified and noted that the port has no responsibility for collecting taxes.
Dave Sanford, the port's deputy executive director, reiterated that point last week. He said renters at the port will receive tax bills directly from the county.
"We don't have a role in it," he said.
The event that prompted the appraiser's office to look into the port's tax issue was the tax collector's attempt to take an unpaid fire district assessment to a tax certificate sale. The procedure allows an investor to buy a property tax debt from the county in exchange for interest and the return of principal when the overdue tax is paid.
But because of the port's tax immunity, no certificate could be sold. Michelle Leeson, a paralegal with the county's field services and collections division, said even with the proper taxing information in place now, no certificate sale or lien could ever be used against the port if a lessee failed to pay its property taxes.
Outside of the agencies that cleaned up the port's tax issue, at least two others took a keen interest in the subject. Attorneys for the North River Fire District and the Manatee County School District communicated with the appraiser's office during the process.
However, Michael Rampino, the fire district's chief, could not put a dollar value on how much revenue the district may have lost, if any.
Still, he is satisfied that taxpayers at the port will now be billed correctly.
"It's kinda like hitting the reset button," Rampino said. "Currently, everybody is paying their fair share."
Rebecca Roberts, chief financial officer for the schools, said revenue lost through the discrepancy could have totalled hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Manatee County does encompass part of one other special district similar to the port. Sarasota-Manatee International Airport leases land and buildings to several dozen businesses.
John Schussler, the airport's director of properties, said that in most cases, tenants pay ad valorem property taxes. Aviation-use tenants, including the airport's fixed-base operators, pay only non-ad valorem taxes such as fire district assessments.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.