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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Sep. 17, 2004 15 years ago

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

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This week's items: John Saputo credits the storms with a spike in sales.Lee Wetheringtonis is diversifing his homebuilding company and is developing his first commercial propertyNothing fine with fines

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

Profitable parties

How about a beer to toast Charley or Frances? Turns out, hurricanes aren't bad news for all industries, especially hardware and alcoholic beverage businesses.

John Saputo's Gold Coast Eagle Distributing Co., Sarasota and Manatee counties' Anheuser Busch distributor, credits the storms with a spike in sales.

"The commission checks I'm paying this month are the largest I have ever paid, and I have owned a beer distributorship for 25 years," Saputo says. "And I'm happy to do it. These guys have done a great job serving our customers during these hurricanes."

After Hurricane Charley cut a swath through Charlotte County, residents there migrated south to Fort Myers or north into Sarasota County, Saputo's distribution area.

"It was a boon to southern Sarasota County," he says.

Thanks to Charley and the threat of Ivan, people had extra days off work (or more time to drink beer), he says, adding, "Our staff really hasn't had any days off in about 20 days straight; we're on hurricane duty."

Gold Coast sales for September are up 44%, or 53,000 cases, he says, with much of the increase due to the sale of the 20-pack bottles and 24-pack cans.

"This is unheard of in the industry," he says.

"The moral of the story is that if you are in the beer business or the hardware store business, unless the storm comes across your town it's an opportunity to make some great profits."

In response to the near-misses, Saputo beefed up the company's hurricane recovery plan. He bought a large generator for Gold Coast Eagle Distributing's warehouse facility.

"We are also going to make a conscious effort that when we replace a truck we replace it with refrigerated trucks," Saputo says. "This is mainly to keep the kegs cool, because the beer is unpasteurized. I have also been talking to some real estate people lining up alternative warehouse sites if this one were ever damaged."

To help those in need, Gold Coast Eagle Distributing distributed 5,000 cases of Anheuser Busch canned water in areas affected by Charley. The company is also assisting Peace River Distributing Inc., a Charlotte County beer distributor.

Homebuilder to landlord

Lee Wetherington, of the Lee Wetherington Cos. Inc. and GCBR's 2003 Entrepreneur of the Year, is starting to diversify his homebuilding company and is developing his first commercial property.

"We have a new attached product that we will be doing in Venice," Wetherington says. "I'm not at liberty to say exactly where. We have the land under contract there but we don't have it zoned the way we want yet. We are going to do about 210 units on about 68 acres. It's going to be a mix of attached town homes, four-plexes, duplexes and single-family detached homes."

Homes in the community will be priced from the high $100,000s to the mid-$200,000s.

Also, Wetherington signed a contract to partner with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc. to develop a 30,000-square-foot office building in the Magnolia Green area of Lakewood Ranch. The new building will be near Wetherington's 12,000-square-foot headquarters at 6009 Business Blvd.

"We think we have real good partner there," Wetherington says of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch.

"We are going to have our design center take 5,000 square feet (in the new building.) We are also going to have our pool division, Leisure Water Pools, take part of the building (about 2,500 square feet). We are looking for a deli, sandwich shop or maybe a coffee shop on the far end of the building."

Lakewood Ranch Realty will be charged with leasing out the remaining 22,500 square feet of commercial space.

In addition, Wetherington is looking to further diversify his companies by building workforce housing.

Nothing fine with fines

Florida Auditor General William O. Monroe has raised more concerns about how state court officials assess and collect fees and fines.

In a report made public last month, Monroe says the state's trial bench failed to assess an estimated $516 million in fees and fines in criminal and traffic courts. His auditors seldom could find documentation to explain why the levies were waived during the 2002 fiscal year, Monroe says.

Judges in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Sarasota and seven other counties were more likely to treat these assessments as discretionary, based on a statewide sampling of cases conducted by Monroe's auditors.

Another $83 million worth of fees and fines that were assessed have yet to be collected, according to Monroe. The auditor general placed partial blame on some clerks who don't use collection agencies or send written notification to the scofflaws.

The clerks in Charlotte and Sarasota counties were among those singled out for praise for using collection agencies.

Finally, when fines and fees did come into the court system, some county clerks weren't always placing the cash in interest-bearing or investment accounts before disbursing the funds to the appropriate jurisdiction or state agency. State law requires them to do so, says Monroe.

The clerks in Hillsborough and Sarasota were among only a handful that Monroe tested and found were handling and investing court assessments in conformance with state law.

The Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability, a legislative project to increase the efficiency of Florida government known as OPPAGA, earlier studied the same issues with input from judicial officials.

Judges, clerks and court administrators had plenty to tell Monroe about his findings, too.

As the judges told OPPAGA, they don't have the time or the resources to memorialize their reasoning for deviating from sentencing guidelines when it comes to monetary penalties. Even if they could, the judges say it might not be desirable. Written rationales could provide another avenue for appeal of sentences.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente took exception to a few of Monroe's conclusions. "I disagree with the assertion ¦ that judges actively advocate for increased discretion," Pariente wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to the auditor general. "While judges naturally want the punishment to fit the crime and an individual defendant's circumstances, they know that decision does not reside with them where the Legislature has clearly expressed an intent to make a certain cost mandatory."

Pariente was in agreement with one Monroe recommendation: Consolidate the references to fees and fines currently scattered throughout Florida Statutes into a central statute.

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