CLEARWATER - The Clearwater City Council took steps to implement a tax deferral program for recreational and commercial working waterfront properties during its February 2nd meeting. The initiative was enabled by Florida Statutes Sec. 197.303, passed by the legislature in 2005.
Clearwater lost several members of its working waterfront business community in 2005, including Ross Yachts and High and Dry Marina on Island Estates, and the Marine Ways on Old Clearwater Bay; each was acquired by land developers and razed to make way for condominiums. The demise of Clearwater's marine businesses has come in part as a result of increasing property taxes.
The Council's action was sought by member Bill Jonson in an effort to preserve Clearwater's remaining working waterfronts. But recognizing the limitations of the enabling Florida statute, he said, "This is not a giant step forward for the business owner, just an expression of support."
City Attorney Pam Akin explained that this is a tax deferral, not a freezing or reduction of property taxes. In addition, the deferred tax amount accrues interest, and the total is recorded as a lien on the subject property.
Harbormaster Bill Morris said that Quality Boats, one of Clearwater's few remaining working waterfronts, did not see the tax deferral as a benefit for them. "They were more interested in their immediate tax bill being improperly categorized as highest and best use. Rather than have a tax deferral, they'd like to see their taxes properly represent the business that they're running, and not condo rates," he said.
Kurt Frahn, VP of Finance for Marine Max, echoed Morris' observation. "It's not a significant benefit to us," he said, "At the end of the day, it's just a short term cash flow remedy."
Despite the statute's limitations and the apparent lack of interested business owners, the Council favored taking action. Council member John Doran said, "I'm not persuaded by the fact that one property owner isn't interested."
Clearwater would be the first municipality to take advantage of Florida's statute. "I think that there's something to be said for being first in the Working Waterways legislation," Doran said, "especially since it was championed by our local representative." State Representative Kim Berfield was the sponsor of the enabling state legislation.
The Council agreed to move forward with the ordinance. Mayor Hibbard said, "There you have it, Ms. Akin. Blaze a trail."
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