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Table setting for an event at Selby Gardens
Sarasota Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021 1 month ago

Selby Gardens, property appraiser set for showdown

This week, a special magistrate will hear a long-gestating challenge to the tax-exempt status of the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens downtown campus.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Seven local nonprofit organizations received notice from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser in May that they would not receive a renewal of a previously approved property tax exemption.

Although other nonprofits have since come to an agreement with the property appraiser’s office, one high-profile exception remains: Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

Property Appraiser Bill Furst and Selby Gardens have both expressed frustration with the process of reviewing the tax-exempt status of Selby’s bayfront campus. Each side has accused the other of sharing inaccurate information and failing to properly interpret state law.

On Friday, for the second time in the past year, a special magistrate will oversee a hearing about the property appraiser’s challenge to Selby’s tax exemption. Ahead of that hearing, Selby Gardens obtained a package of public records from the property appraiser that sheds some insight into how Furst’s office has handled the case.

In emails to members of the public, Furst repeatedly cites Selby’s 2015 partnership agreement with Michael’s on East, a for-profit business, as the impetus for denying any tax exemption for a property now valued at $61.8 million. Michael’s on East is the exclusive food service provider at Selby Gardens, operating the Selby House Café and catering all events — including those held at the Michael’s on the Bay event center.

Selby Gardens has maintained that its partnership with Michael’s on East does not violate its entitlement to a tax exemption as a scientific research institution, stating it is a subordinate use to the property’s primary mission. Despite that belief, Selby President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said the organization is willing to enter a similar arrangement as the one the property appraiser struck last year with Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, which maintained a tax exemption for 96.5% of its property’s assessed value.

Rominiecki said the property appraiser has been unwilling to engage in an earnest conversation about reaching such a deal. She accused Furst’s office of handling the Selby case differently than others, possibly because of misconceptions about how the organization operates.

“It’s perplexing,” Rominiecki said. “We don’t understand it, and we feel Selby should be treated fairly and the same as any other nonprofit organization in our region.”

Furst, however, has maintained his position that the challenge to Selby’s tax exemption is based on a straightforward interpretation of state statutes. Although Furst has declined to comment substantively on the subject to media, he has sent internal and external emails accusing Selby Gardens of failing to adequately comply with requests for information and Rominiecki of misleading the public about the facts of the case.

“Truth checking Ms. Rominiecki’s emails and guest editorials would find them 95% incorrect,” Furst said in a Dec. 18 email.

Seeds of discord

Furst’s office initially challenged Selby Garden’s tax exemption in 2019. A special magistrate for the county’s Value Adjustment Board dismissed the case in January 2020 because of a procedural error: The property appraiser failed to notify Selby of its decision via mail ahead of an established deadline.

By April, the property appraiser was working to finalize new plans to notify organizations that were not receiving an automatic renewal of a previous tax exemption. An April 29 email from an employee in the property appraiser’s office details a package of three documents to be sent to all of those organizations — plus an additional attachment with 25 questions crafted specifically for Selby Gardens.

Among other documents, the attachment asks for information on Selby’s operating agreement with Michael’s on East, copies of any lease or rental agreements associated with the property, copies of all agreements that allowed third-party entities to sell goods or services on various portions of the property, a list of private events held at the site, a list of all donors to Selby Gardens since 2017 and copies of all records associated with remodeling the Schimmel Wedding Pavilion. Selby flagged the request as an example of the property appraiser having a different standard for the review of its exemption as compared to other nonprofits.

In May, following reports about the initial denial of tax exemptions, Furst sent an email to an employee in his office outlining the crux of his argument: Portions of Selby’s property that are not used for scientific research and that benefit a for-profit business should not receive an exemption. Furst also said Florida regulations could even invite further scrutiny of the tax exemption for Selby Gardens.

“Building which only Michael’s on East can use & make money using, contribute nothing to the furtherance of science and under current law must be taxed,” Furst wrote. “A strict interpretation of the state statues might question the tax exempt status of the beautiful grounds we all enjoy walking thru because they do not provide a scientific purpose.”

A key portion of the relevant state statutes reads: “Only those portions of property used predominantly for charitable, religious, scientific or literary purposes shall be exempt. In no event shall an incidental use of property either qualify such property for an exemption or impair the exemption of an otherwise exempt property.”

Rominiecki has forcefully rejected Furst’s interpretation of the statutes, stating that Selby has ultimate control over how its property is operated, and revenues generated from events on the site are funneled into furthering the scientific mission of the gardens. Still, she said Selby’s attorneys have proposed alternative taxation models in an attempt to resolve the dispute, but the property appraiser hasn’t agreed to them.

Despite discussing the topic with the property appraiser over the course of several months, Rominiecki said she struggled to understand key aspects of Furst’s decision-making. Why were other organizations able to resolve their situations quickly? Why did Furst determine that less than 11% of Selby’s property should be taxable in 2019, but that 100% should be taxable in 2020?

“Nothing about our operation changed,” Rominiecki “How come Mote Marine Aquarium has a 97% exemption and here we are looking at a 0% exemption? It’s just perplexing. It doesn’t add up.”

Building frustrations

As the back-and-forth between Selby and the property appraiser continued into the fall, frustrations mounted for Furst.

In emails, property appraiser employees repeatedly complained about Selby Gardens failing to provide requested documentation in a timely fashion. They chafed at interpretations of the law from Selby’s legal team. By November, there was a sense that dialog with Selby was pointless, and that the case was destined to head to court.

“I have no interest in wasting time with them unless they have provided something to discuss,” Furst wrote in a Nov. 4 email.

In January, Furst sent a letter to Marianne McComb, vice chairperson of the Selby Gardens board of directors. Furst said he does not believe 100% of Selby’s exemption should be denied, but a lack of relevant information about the organization’s operations made it impossible to accurately apportion the site into exempt and non-exempt segments.

Furst said he approached Selby about the need to examine its business operations in 2019 following reports about Michael’s on the Bay, and that Rominiecki has been hostile to the property appraiser’s efforts. He said many other nonprofits in the county pay taxes on profit-making segments of their property.

"Then, as now, Ms. Rominiecki wants Selby Gardens to be treated differently than all other nonprofits in our community and is willing to spend potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars defending her position," Furst wrote.  

In a response letter, McComb challenged several of Furst’s claims. She said Selby Gardens has shared key documents with the property appraiser, including the organization’s general ledger — produced in November after several requests from Furst’s office — and the confidential rental agreement with Michaels on East.

Rominiecki strongly disagreed with the characterization of Selby as uncooperative.

“We’ve responded at every turn,” Rominiecki said. “I would question whether any other organization has provided the level of detail we’ve provided.”

She also questioned Furst’s motives, noting that he had received input on Selby’s business activity from residents who opposed a proposal to renovate the property in 2019 and 2020.

Furst declined to respond to a series of questions about Selby Gardens.

“As I stated previously, the press is not the proper venue for this matter,” Furst said in an email. “Florida Statutes lay out the process for when disagreements arise over assessments, and that process is to have an impartial review by the Value Adjustment Board.”

With Selby Gardens facing a tax bill of nearly $1 million, it appears a third party will need to settle the simmering dispute between the botanical garden and the property appraiser. Depending on the outcome of Friday’s hearing, the special magistrate’s opinion may not bring resolution to the matter.

“Frankly, if this decision doesn’t come out in our favor, we would have to go to Circuit Court — because this is a precedent-setting case that would not only gravely affect Selby Gardens, but the entire nonprofit sector,” Rominiecki said.

This article has been updated to incorporate information on the property appraiser’s list of 25 additional questions for Selby Gardens.

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