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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 15, 2004 16 years ago

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

This week's items: Is Airport chief paid well enough for successes?North American Properties wins early battle for Bee Ridge CenterSupreme Court dismisses anit-morritorium casesIs it bankers' turn?

Coffee Talk (Sara/Mana edition)

Soft landing

The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport has seen better days.

As airlines show a stronger preference for touching down at the Fort Myers and Tampa airports, passenger counts have steadily descended in Sarasota. Barely a million passengers came through the terminal last year, a decline of 5% over 2002 that continued a decade-long trend.

But things are looking up for the airport and especially for its president and chief executive, Fred Piccolo.

This month, Orlando discounter AirTran Airways Inc. announced service from Sarasota to Atlanta and to Baltimore, starting in December.

The Sarasota-Manatee Airport Authority, the agency that operates the county-line airfield, may have gotten carried away with the news from AirTran after years of commercial service contraction.

The authority rewarded Piccolo with a new contract that contains 4.25% annual raises for the next five years. On top of that, authority members are dipping into airport coffers to lavish up to $765,000 on a new house in the area for Piccolo, who currently commutes to work from Clearwater.

The new contract calls for the authority to pick up Piccolo's mortgage payments, real estate taxes, lawn service and most utility bills.

Those kind of numbers got Coffee Talk to thinking: Is Piccolo grossly underpaid now? That doesn't appear to be the case.

Piccolo makes $156,613 a year at present. Not bad, considering Robert M. Ball, executive director of the Southwest Florida International Airport, takes $183,825 annually. The Fort Myers airport greets almost six times as many passengers as the Sarasota airport.

Both men have been in their jobs for about the same amount of time, Piccolo since 1995 and Ball since 1996.

Ronald "Noah" Lagos, executive director of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, has a ways to go to catch up to his Sarasota and Fort Myers counterparts. Lagos, who used to be Piccolo's chief operating officer in Sarasota, makes an annual salary of $122,847.

After a brief stopover as a transportation official in Fresno, Lagos started in Clearwater this year. His airport handled only about 65,000 fewer passengers than Piccolo's airport in 2003.

Publix jumps hurdle

Chalk up an early victory to Debra Garrett and Publix Super Markets. Garrett, a consultant for Cincinnati-based North American Properties, was brought in to aid the Lakeland-based grocery store chain's efforts to obtain government approval for a 69,000-square-foot neighborhood shopping plaza at the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and the Bee Ridge Extension.

After a few concessions to the local homeowners groups, Garrett and her staff waged an information blitz. It's worked so far.

The Sarasota County Commission voted 3-2 to approve the future land-use map designation and the comprehensive plan amendment.

But Garrett cautioned that comp plan amendment is still not a done deal and after the plan receives state approval it will come back to the commission again for final adoption. Meanwhile, North American Properties and its development specialists are working to finalize the site plan to rezone the 10-acre property to commercial neighborhood and to file a request for a special exception for off-site retention and the Publix.

Will the rezone also be contentious? Could be, Garrett says, adding, "The opposition (several homeowners) has hired (Sarasota attorney and controlled-growth advocate) Dan Lobeck."

But ultimately, Garrett says it was the unenhanced facts supporting the project that carried the day.

"There was a lot of misinformation out there that we had to counter," Garrett says. "It just made us work harder. This is the best job we have ever done. This was a great team effort from the land-use attorney Dan and Charlie Bailey, WilsonMiller, Biological Research Associates, Fishkind & Associates and Kimley-Horn. We all deserved this win and worked really hard to make it happen."

This is North American Properties' fourth attempt to develop the Bee Ridge property since 1998.

Moratorium discussion continues

The Florida Supreme Court has dismissed without prejudice two cases seeking to lift Florida Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead's moratorium on clerks of court posting court documents on the Internet. Without comment, the court dismissed the claims and wrote, "Petitioners have a continuing right to present their arguments and positions to the Committee on Privacy and Court Records to seek the recommendation of both temporary and final orders."

The cases were brought primarily by the Florida Land Title Association and Florida media operations.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Privacy and Court Records is soliciting public comment on the issue. Written comments are due by Nov. 1 and can be e-mailed to [email protected] or mailed to Committee on Privacy and Court Records, Supreme Court of Florida, 500 S. Duval St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1900.

Is it bankers' turn?

A new accounting problem at SunTrust Banks Inc. may have implications for other financial institutions, particularly those owned by public holding companies.

The Atlanta bank, the nation's seventh-largest with an 11% share of the Florida market by deposits, placed Chief Credit Officer Sandra Jansky and Controller Jorge Arrieta on paid leave Oct. 11, pending an internal review.

SunTrust says it found that finance executives socked away $30 million too much into loan-loss reserves during the first two quarters of the year.

The discovery suggests SunTrust may be fiddling with reserve accounts in order to smooth out quarterly earnings. Similar problems at mortgage purchaser Fannie Mae and other companies usually prompt a restatement of financial results. SunTrust says it will do just that.

Richard X. Bove, a Tampa Bay area-based bank analyst for Punk Ziegel & Co., says federal securities regulators are apt to join the SunTrust inquiry. Six years ago, a Securities and Exchange Commission probe forced a SunTrust restatement that lowered reserves by $100 million. Bove recalls SunTrust's profit growth suddenly ebbed after that.

This time around, Bove doesn't think the SEC is going to stop with SunTrust. "For a number of quarters now we have argued that banks are using financial engineering to report higher results," Bove says in a recent report titled "Managing Earnings."

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