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Spiking insurance, taxes render business a relic

Small-business owners countywide are feeling the fiscal pressures.

By ANNE LINDBERG
Published February 25, 2007


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PINELLAS PARK - The sign on Park Boulevard pretty much says it all: Gov. Crist. Too late. Closing. Insurance. Taxes.

The epitaph for Kathy Schuckert's 16-year-old antique mall resonates with small-business owners across the county who are struggling with exorbitant increases in property taxes and insurance rates.

More than 7 percent of business owners reported that they had considered closing last year, according to a 2006 county survey.

That's up 3 percentage points since the last survey, in 2004, said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County economic development.

"You cannot stay in business," said Schuckert, who owns Vintage Antiques Fine Replications & Estate Antique Mall in Pinellas Park. "It's not even affordable for a business person to stay in business."

First, Schuckert said, she was hit with a tenfold increase in insurance that did not include wind and hail protection. Then, the taxes on the mall, at 7750 Park Blvd., jumped more than $4,000 in a year, from about $14,570 in 2005 to $18,867 in 2006.

She decided that her only recourse was to close.

"We're selling everything to the walls, (the) blood, guts and tears," Schuckert said. "It's sad. It's very sad."

First she cried. Then she got mad and posted the sign, not as a protest against Crist, for whom she campaigned and voted, but as a political statement to make people aware of the problems that businesses, especially small ones, are facing.

Edward Lurie, who owns and manages several properties in Seminole, can sympathize.

"It's devastating," Lurie said. "Most of our leases are gross leases, and there's no adjustment for sudden increases in taxes and insurance. The insurance is just impossible."

Lurie said the insurance bill for his properties increased from about $8,000 a year to $90,000. That higher price does not include protection from wind damage and carries a larger deductible.

"We've eliminated certain coverages because we just can't afford it," Lurie said. "I'd be operating in the red if I bought that kind of insurance."

Come hurricane season, Lurie said, he'll be crossing his fingers.

"I'm gambling instead of the insurance company gambling," Lurie said, adding that property taxes also are crippling because businesses don't get the same tax cap afforded homeowners.

Gretchen Cain, who works for the Seminole Chamber of Commerce, is involved in a city-chamber-county program to help businesses in trouble.

The complaints about insurance and taxes are no surprise to her. Most of the businesses she talks to in the greater Seminole area have "all remarked that it's hit them hard and they've had to cut back on other things."

The first cutback, Cain said, is usually advertising, which is "the kiss of death."

She said she has talked to several business owners who are considering Lurie's strategy.

"They're tempted to skip insuring altogether, which we really don't recommend," she said.

About 77 percent of the businesses in the county are small, with 10 or fewer employees, according to a 2006 survey by Pinellas County.

Smaller businesses are the most sensitive, said Meidel, the county's economic development chief.

He ranked the top issues of concern for county business owners like this: cost of insurance, the inequities and amount of property taxes, transportation and housing.

Housing, he said, is more a concern of big businesses that are trying to recruit people to move to the area.

Mom-and-pop hotels on the beaches have been hit with the highest increases in property taxes, he said, as land values have soared. They also have seen insurance costs skyrocket because they are the most likely to suffer storm damage.

Fast Facts:

If you go

Last chance

The Vintage Antiques Fine Replications & Estate Antique Mall, 7750 Park Blvd., is closing. Most items are 50 percent off and all items in the 15,000-square-foot building must go, including fixtures. Open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. The store has antiques, collectibles and reproductions ranging from the kitschy to the elegant. For information, call 547-6123.

 

By the numbers

77 Percentage of Pinellas businesses that have 10 or fewer employees.

62 Percentage that have been in the county for more than a decade.

91 Percentage of businesses that have their headquarters in the county.

32 Percentage that rates business tax structure in the county as "excellent/good," a 13-point decrease from 2004.

19 Percentage that rate business incentives here as "excellent/good"; was 24 percent in 2004.

Source: 2006 Pinellas County Business Survey

[Last modified February 24, 2007, 20:29:03]


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