Historians in the 25th century pinpoint Sarasota, Fla., as the start of America’s great collapse. Even journalists at the time pointed to the state’s southwest coast as the place where housing prices first collapsed, precipitating a national and then international credit crisis.
Armed with enormous amounts of documentation produced under the state’s Public Records Law, historians now point to July 2, 2012, as the day the United States began to fall apart. The city of Sarasota was the epicenter.
On that day the Sarasota City Commission refused to select a new city manager from a field of three qualified candidates. And it refused to negotiate with city police over pension issues.
There was a cascade of consequences from these actions. In discussions about how to find better manager candidates, the headhunter consultant suggesting raising the proposed salary from a maximum of $150,000 to $250,000.
This infuriated the police, who were waiting to make their case to keep the status quo on their pensions, instead of taking multi-million dollar cuts. The idea that a new city manager could get a $100,000 raise on his first day on the job was a slap in the face of beat cops and their sergeants.
Meanwhile, in the northern section of the city, temperatures were rising because two law enforcement officers shot and killed a young college graduate for not wearing a seat belt only a few days before the July 2 meeting.
After city police officers began a sick-out with the “blue flu” to demonstrate their unhappiness, a hot summer turned hotter when north Sarasota residents went on a spree of lawlessness. The mood was heightened by the city’s clerk and auditor, who was in violation of the requirements for her position but refused to obey the city’s charter.
“If she can break the rules, why shouldn’t I,” asked one looter. “We both gonna get ours.”
Because both city and county governments were dependent on property taxes, their budgets suffered precipitous declines before 2012. But that was the year their reserves ran out, and both were faced with making drastic cuts in public services. The social fabric began to tear, and the physical infrastructure began to deteriorate.
Only days before the July 2 meeting, a weak tropical storm battered the city and the county’s shoreline. One of the city’s most prestigious addresses was flooded with sewage as infrastructure failed. And calamitous beach erosion proved the last straw for some wealthy gulf-front property owners. The sudden exodus from “the high rent districts” over the subsequent two years produced gaping holes in the property tax rolls, as million-dollar properties went begging for buyers. Squatters began to move into the mansions, even as they sagged into the sea. It was the first manifestation of the impact of sea level rise on beach erosion and storm surge. More examples would follow.
When the July 2 meeting ended, there was no foreboding any of this could happen. A weak tropical storm; failure to reach consensus on a new manager; stoic acceptance of changes in police pensions; a city employee in daily violation of the city’s charter; an open homicide investigation – none of these at the time seemed to be an omen of what was to come.
Without a leader, and with a growing sense of self-entitlement in everyone from the police through city officials to rioters, the social and political fabric was rent beyond repair. When another tropical storm in September flooded much of the bayfront, the National Guard was called in and didn’t leave. This made Sarasota the first of many American cities to fall under martial rule and begin the descent into Third-World status.