McDonald Fleming Partners Represent City in Landmark Taxation Case Before Florida Supreme Court
Updated: Apr 11
April 11, 2023
GULF BREEZE, FL - On April 5, 2023, attorneys Ed Fleming and Matt Bush, partners at McDonald Fleming LLP, had the honor of representing the City of Gulf Breeze before the Florida Supreme Court in a case involving an issue of great public importance. The case, City of Gulf Breeze v. Brown et al., centers on the taxation of a city-owned golf course used for recreation.
At issue is whether a golf course owned by a city but managed by a for-profit private entity is exempt from property taxes under Article 7, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, which exempts property owned by a municipality and used exclusively for municipal or public purposes. The case has implications for cities throughout Florida, the third most populous state in the country.
In oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court, Gulf Breeze argued that the ownership and purpose of the golf course did not change after it entered into an agreement with Tiger Point Golf Club LLC, a for-profit private entity, to manage the property. The city's director of recreation controlled the golf course both before and after the management agreement, according to Gulf Breeze's attorney, Ed Fleming.
"The use remained unchanged, and I think that is the critical point before the court," Fleming said.
But Loren Levy, who argued on behalf of Santa Rosa County Property Appraiser Gregory Brown, called that a "distinction without a difference" and argued that whenever a for-profit business uses a city property, the property loses tax-exempt status, regardless of whether the agreement is called a management deal or a lease.
In March 2022, the First District Court of Appeal ruled that the golf course was not exempt from property taxes because the agreement with Tiger Point went beyond a contract to manage the facilities and allowed the company to retain the profit from its operation of the course. The court ruled that Tiger Point's operation of the course was not exclusively for a municipal or public purpose and served its own profit-making ventures, therefore that portion of the property was not exempt.
Gulf Breeze is appealing the First District's decision and arguing that the golf course is exempt from property taxes under Article 7, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution.
The Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction of the case in August on the basis that the issue of whether a public golf course is used exclusively for municipal or public purposes if it is run by a private entity for profit is a question of great importance.
Gulf Breeze is represented by Edward P. Fleming and Matthew A. Bush of McDonald Fleming LLP. Brown is represented by Loren E. Levy of The Levy Law Firm.
For reference, the case is City of Gulf Breeze v. Brown et al., case number SC22-741, in the Supreme Court of Florida. Visit Law360’s article for more information on the case.