The County Commission gives the city more time to try to resolve a dispute over property assessments and debates future CRA funding
With City of Sarasota and Sarasota County staff having met and agreed to iron out a dispute over county assessments of city property for the 2016 fiscal year, the County Commission voted unanimously on Sept. 22 to provide a waiver that would permit the city an extra 30 days in the event it chooses to file suit against the county over the assessments.
The action came during the County Commission’s second public hearing to adopt its 2016 fiscal year budget.
However, while this issue with the city appeared closer to resolution, differing views over the future of Community Redevelopment Areas (CRA) in the county arose later during the budget session. Those comments preceded a county board vote on a resolution “providing for the final appropriation of increment revenues” to the Downtown CRA, which is set to expire in 2016.
During the County Commission’s Sept. 14 public hearing on the budget, Deputy City Attorney Michael Connolly and John R. Herin Jr. of GrayRobinson, a Fort Lauderdale law firm hired by the city to assist with the matter, appeared before the board to protest the county’s attempt to impose fire-rescue assessments on 16 city parcels, including the city water tower on Southgate Mall property. Two other county assessments of city property involved garbage and stormwater fees.
During the Sept. 22 meeting, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that he wrote a letter to Connolly on Sept. 16, asking for documentation “setting forth [the city’s] legal arguments against the fee assessments.”
The following day, DeMarsh continued, “city and county representatives met and came up with an action plan: The city will provide an explanation in writing as to why its staff believes each parcel on which an assessment is to be levied should not be subject to such action.
In the meantime, DeMarsh noted, the water tower has been removed from the list of properties for which the county proposes assessments.
On Sept. 23, Connolly told The Sarasota News Leader the GrayRobinson representatives are working on the documentation DeMarsh referenced. “I told them [county staff members] need it ASAP.”
In a Sept. 22 email to DeMarsh, Connolly wrote that after the city delivers its formal response to the county, “you will know fully the factual and legal issues being raised by the city.”
In his remarks to the County Commission, DeMarsh also pointed to a section of Connolly’s email — copies of which he had provided to the county board — in which Connolly sought the extra time, if necessary, to file a lawsuit challenging the assessments.
By law, according to the Sept. 14 votes the County Commission took on the FY 2016 budget, millage rates and assessments, a 20-day window began for the filing of any legal challenge, DeMarsh said. “The waiver of any time limit to file [a lawsuit] is a board decision,” he added. “I believe it’s within your discretion to grant one if you choose to. If you do, I would suggest [an extra] 30 days.”
In response to a question posed by Commissioner Christine Robinson, DeMarsh said that if the board granted the request, he did not believe the commissioners “would be waiving any legal rights.”
“This was handled much more professionally than our last public hearing,” Robinson pointed out. “There’s a way to make an objection and lay things on the record in a professional, respectful way, and then there’s another way to do it.”
She added that, as attorneys, she and Commissioner Charles Hines have seen both types of approaches. “I appreciate the fact that this has been ratcheted down and [city representatives are] handling it in this sort of way.”
Hines agreed with Robinson, saying he felt the request for the waiver was an appropriate one. He then made the motion to approve the request, with Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, a former city commissioner, seconding it.
The CRA discussion
After the reading of the resolution regarding the CRA funds, Caragiulo announced he wanted to put some comments on the record. “I believe the CRA program has been very effective,” he said. “I’ve seen it firsthand.”
His family arrived in Sarasota in 1987, he continued, “when there was real blight in the urban core.” Palm Avenue at that time “had a lot of drugs and a lot of male prostitutes to the point where people thought my parents were out of their minds, signing a lease for a restaurant [on that street],” Caragiulo told his colleagues.
A significant factor in the elimination of those problems was the city’s ability to use CRA revenue to undertake projects that improved downtown Sarasota, he continued, including the creation of Five Points Park and Bayfront Park.
“The main goal of a Community Redevelopment Area is to combat blight and to encourage private development,” he said. “There are still areas, in my opinion, that fit that description, or, as I read the statute [providing for the establishment of CRAs], that requirement.” He added that he feels the county should participate in a continuation of a Newtown CRA or some other form of joint effort to redevelop that part of the community, with the tax increment financing adjusted accordingly.
After decades of the Downtown Sarasota CRA’s existence, he pointed out, “we know so much more about what to do and what not to do.”
Then Caragiulo made a motion to approve the CRA resolution as part of the county’s FY 2016 budget process.
Vice Chairman Al Maio seconded the motion, adding of Caragiulo, “He captured everything that I would have said.”
However, Robinson reminded her colleagues that, after recent discussions, the county board had created “a new mechanism for funding capital projects that [is] available to the entire county. … Other areas of the county have blight.”
The County Commission needs to be cautious about approving any future CRAs, she continued, because such action would result in higher millage rates for taxpayers.
Nonetheless, she said, “There’s certainly a discussion to come,” and it needs to encompass issues “from the Manatee County line to the Charlotte County line.”
Chair Carolyn Mason noted that the last time the county board discussed the CRA with the Sarasota city commissioners, “we agreed that Newtown … deserved better, needed work.” She added that the county board had asked the city board, “‘Bring us a project … and we’ll talk about … helping you to fund that project.’ No project has been brought forward.”
She then concurred with Robinson’s remark regarding the funding of capital projects throughout the county.
“I will be very prepared to have that debate with you as a point-by-point, dollar-by-dollar issue,” Caragiulo replied.
The board then voted unanimously to approve the CRA resolution.