Following the failure of the membership of the St. Armands Business Improvement District to renew the special district for another 10 years, its board of directors is preparing to take a second vote on the matter.
During the Feb. 6 Sarasota City Commission meeting, BID Business Manager Julie Ryan, a city employee, explained the shortfall in the required percentage vote of the 63 property owners at St. Armands Circle was largely because of technicalities.
Because it is a special tax overlay district, the voting is weighted by the relative value of the property owners who cast ballots. Of the ballots returned, 48.9% of the assessed value that returns ballots approved of the renewal. Ryan said two of the returned ballots were disqualified because they were improperly completed, either of which would have put approval over the top.
Ryan told commissioners that historically it requires two votes to renew the BID.
At its Feb. 8 meeting, the BID board voted 3-0 to restart the renewal process, which will require several months to complete. The current timeline runs until August. Without timely renewal approval, the BID expires on Sept. 30. Absent from the meeting was Yamen Elsaid. The fifth seat is vacant and has yet to be filled by City Commission appointment.
BID Chairman Tom Leonard blamed the first vote shortfall on confusing ballot instructions.
“I've talked to almost every one of these property owners, and we all filled them out,” Leonard said of the returned ballots. “I'm going to be honest with you. I had mine completely done and I put it in the envelope and I said, dang, now I I’ve got to get my wife's signature. She's in California. So I spent I don't know how many dollars on FedEx going back and forth.”
Another property owner, he said, filled out the ballot while on the way to airport and, needing a witness signature, had her Uber driver sign. The ballot was disqualified because the driver did not provide his or her address.
More education, Leonard said, should be included with the second ballot to ensure that the votes will meet all the criteria required by state special district statute. A new web site launched by the BID since the beginning of the first ballot process, Ryan said, will help.
“I also had another person I talked to who said we didn't have their right address. Now we have to go back and try to get that fixed,” Leonard said. “If everyone would have turned theirs in who said they were going to turn them in, or they would have filled it out correctly, we could have had as much as 70-plus percent."
Restarting the process starts with a petition that at least 13 property owners sign. That petition must then be presented at a meeting of the City Commission — the April 3 meeting is the earliest that can be placed on the agenda — and the commission must validate the petition to pursue a second vote.
Assuming City Commission acceptance of the petition, the race to renewal begins. Ballots must be delivered via certified mail, then returned. Renewal is approved by affirmative vote of greater than 50% of the assessed property value owners.
“I'm really confident that we can get this done right, but it is a little bit of holding hands,” Leonard said. "Some of (the property owners) have offices and they get thrown in the desk. So anyway, I'm confident. That being said, those people who voted for us, thank you. And those people who did not send in their ballots, we will be hunting you down.”
To meet state statute, the voting period must conclude within 120 days, by Aug. 7.
The St. Armands BID is one of more than 1,800 special districts in the state. The Florida Constitution defines them as “a unit of local government created for a special purpose, as opposed to a general purpose, which has jurisdiction to operate within a limited geographic boundary and is created by general law, special act or local ordinance.”
The BID is governed by a board of directors that is appointed by the City Commission. The five-member board currently has a vacancy. Rachel Burns, executive director of the St. Armands Circle Association, who along with her husband owns commercial property there, has expressed interest in filling that seat. The association is an organization of merchants at the circle.
Commercial property owners in the BID pay additional property taxes that are collected by the city, the revenues made available for improvements and service enhancements within the district. Sarasota has a second special district, the Downtown Improvement District.