Turner details city financial woes; CCNA reflects rare division

Photo by Norman Schimmel

A rare whiff of sourness roiled the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations meeting on Saturday, Aug. 4. Two representatives of African-American neighborhoods were withdrawn and bitter, while a representative from a third less-prosperous neighborhood urged the coalition to censure City Commissioner Terry Turner.

Turner was the featured speaker that morning, bearing his own version of bad news. He reviewed city budgets for the past several years and offered an ugly vision of the future, one in which the rich desert the city.

Turner’s tale of doom

Terry Turner via Facebook

Accompanied by city Finance Director Chris Lyons, Turner used the city budget as the basis for looking to the past and future. He began with “the last of the good times” in 2007. “We had 666 employees and spent $48 million in employee compensation,” he said. “The per-employee cost was $65,000.”

Then real estate values crashed. Homes purchased for $250,000 became worth less than $100,000. People began walking away from mortgages, leaving behind empty – sometimes stripped – houses in foreclosure. Scavengers moved in to steal wiring, air conditioning equipment — anything portable and salvageable.

City Commissioner Terry Turner provided these budget comparisons during the Aug. 4 CCNA meeting.

“We had a continuing decline in revenues and an increase in expenses,” said Turner. “Every year there was a $2-3 million shortfall, and the response strategy has been reducing staff.” One-third, or 222, people lost their city jobs.

“For the most part, service levels have been maintained,” he said. “We’re asking staff to do much more with much less, and they deserve our thanks and gratitude.”

After six years of plunging property values for tax purposes, the drop stopped for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

During the period of budget tightening, one cost ballooned – pensions. They now consume roughly double their amount in 2007, because earlier city commissions made poor assumptions and bad investment decisions.

“The Sarasota City Commission assumed an 8% return, and they made provisions for a 15-year period. In fact, for the last 12 years, we’ve earned 5%,” said Turner. “That 3% shortfall is a big part of this pension crisis. The benefits are generous, and we did not provide enough for them.”

The city tried to offset the pension problem in other areas. “We had an extreme overhaul of the health care plan,” said Turner. “We offloaded the [Ed Smith] stadium to the county, and that saved $600,000 per year. And the Van Wezel [Performing Arts Hall] now makes $400,000 instead of needing a $1.5 million subsidy.”

For the upcoming fiscal year, the per-employee cost is $88,000, which consumes about 80% of the entire general fund budget. “Per-employee wages are rising, as people move up the career ladder,” he said.

Then Turner made some assumptions about the future. Service levels are held constant, along with the number of city employees. Wages are forecast to grow 4% per year. Pension liabilities are based on a 6% rate of return, or about $25 million per year. And health care costs are expected to rise 8% per year over the next decade.

The impact on the city budget is large. Employee costs will eat up 85% of the general fund, and the cost per employee will be $140,000. Additionally, the current deficit of $2 million (anticipated costs minus anticipated revenue) will swell by $20 million in 2022.

“The economy is clearly sputtering. Tallahassee is trying to reduce local government taxes in a number of areas,” said Turner. “We’ll be lucky if the deficit isn’t $30 [million] or $40 million.”

“The community needs to start thinking about this,” he said. “To balance a $20 million deficit will require a doubling of the millage rate, maybe a tripling of the millage rate. That is not an option.”

He added, “Draconian cuts in staff and services is not an option either.”

Some savings could be achieved with more changes in the police pension plan ($2 million to $3 million saved), he said, or cuts in health care and general pensions ($3 million to $5 million). Taken together, however, those amounts wouldn’t fill the budget deficits.

Turner then suggested two strategies that might provide some relief. One is to “regionalize some services, maybe police services like criminalistics,” he said. “We could possibly regionalize neighborhood services or permitting to manage the city more effectively.”

His other strategy was growth. “Increase the city population by 20%,” said Turner. “The challenge is to do that without destroying the city. We need a vigorous debate on how to grow this city without destroying this city. Every household adds $500 to the tax base; every additional person adds $250 per year in sales taxes.”

The alternative could be a big tax hike, which Turner thinks would be a huge mistake. “In this city, class warfare is so rampant. People say, ‘They can pay for it,’” he said. “But a lot of people in million-dollar condos don’t require a lot of services, and they can move. If we drive them away and the businesses they support, Sarasota won’t be a place we want to live in.”

Turner is eligible for re-election next spring, but he has not made an announcement about whether he will run.

Turmoil among the ‘hoods’

One member of the CCNA wants Turner censured and tossed off the City Commission now. Park East representative Jon Susce interrupted the Aug. 4 meeting several times to make disparaging remarks about Turner.

He also said he wanted his neighborhood moved out of the city’s First District. “We’ll approach Gillespie Park and the Rosemary District to take us out of D-One,” he said.

Turner is among the authors of a proposed city charter change that would dismember the Office of the City Auditor and Clerk, turning over most of the duties to the city manager. Susce perceives the amendment as racist because the current clerk and auditor is Pam Nadalini, an African-American woman with deep ties to the city.

That amendment will be on the November ballot.

The unease over the amendment seemed to spill over to the longstanding CCNA members representing North Sarasota districts.

Every monthly meeting begins with a round-robin survey of the neighborhoods. Valerie Buchand, who represents the Janie Poe public housing complex, often takes several minutes to detail the activities, concerns and complaints of her constituents. This time she said, “There is nothing I want to share.”

A few moments later, the First District’s representative, Barbara Langston, said, “I am sick and tired of this … Maybe you don’t know what racism is.”

For the first time in several years, the neighborhoods reflected division instead of unity. “I do not feel comfortable in this room,” said Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores representative Gretchen Serrie.

2 thoughts on “Turner details city financial woes; CCNA reflects rare division

  1. Thanks for the excellent article. What may seem like gloom and doom may be the shocking revelations needed to jolt the citizens of this city into embracing reality and coming together to seek solutions.

    Thanks need to be heaped upon our commissioner, Terry Turner. None of his colleagues have the capacity to make such an analysis, much less have the courage to step into taking a position that is so disheartening that people would be inclined to reject it or deny it. Horrified by the bizarre dysfunction at our commission table, the blatant attempt to drag Sarasota into a corrupt form of government at a time when it has been rejected repeatedly by the citizens by capitalizing on the distress most communities are suffering from the rampant corruption in our federal government and its relationship to banking cartels, the petty bickering in the turf war suffocating our municipal government, and the nasty politics being leveled at the sole member of our elected representatives who consistently strives to find ways to fix some of our most vexing problems – I was beginning to despair of any rational community discussion beyond the rancor created by vaulting political ambitions.

    I am delighted be given the opportunity to examine some of the material presented to the coalition. Please follow-up on Commissioner Turner’s pursuit of understanding and solutions.

    Regarding the turmoil described as part of this neighborhoods coalition meeting, I question giving credence to what Mr. Susce asserts, but understand the need to inform readers about what transpired in the meeting, therefore, feel that I am better informed. He is a most disruptive and unbalanced man and all in the community know this. The only benefit to providing details of his statements is to discourage those using him for their own purposes. Objective coverage in detail eliminates the benefits of using ‘sound bites’ from Susce’s irrational rantings for those political purposes.

    The referendum I refer to as the severance of the auditor and clerk functions was well-intended. The misunderstandings that have arisen from the unconscionable mischaracterization of the intent of the referendum is appalling. Sensational newspaper articles have preferred to gather circulation advantages by abandoning any concern for the welfare of the community. Politicians have perpetuated or created distortions that reveal the ends to which they will travel in order to seize power from a community that has resisted re-instituting corruption into our form of government by the elimination of our commission-manager form, which was devised to overcome the pervasive corruption that had choked municipal governments for decades.

    I personally would prefer to keep a clerk among the charter officials, but also believe that we need a strong auditor as a separate charter official as well. Seats for each alongside the commissioners, the city attorney, and the city manager would be my preference. Not being a charter official, there is no need for a seat for a deputy city manager at the table, so it doesn’t even require the expense of redesigning the chambers. Yes, making sure that our clerk functions as it does in most municipalities of our size would entail removal of many management functions that would be better overseen by the professional city manager, but it would create a secure compartmentalization of roles that would benefit the community immensely. A strong auditor has always been missing in the city administration, yet it would scrutinize all of the processes that have become so problematic without professional oversight. If the referendum can not be fixed before the election, I hope that another quickly replaces it that not only has the pension issue corrected, but that resolves the need for a strong auditor in a fashion that is most acceptable to the citizens.

    I am so delighted with the professional reporting of the Sarasota News Leader and think you have chosen a most apt name — perhaps others will be inspired to follow your lead.

  2. I wish to clarify that I believe that the proposal by Commissioner Willie Shaw regarding changes to the policing philosophy of the city also qualifies as a significant proposal for the community. I think that he and Turner are the only commissioners seeking solutions to important issues, and unfortunately, I must note that they both are being punished for their efforts by factions that are attempting to grab power at any cost. They are the ‘keepers’ on our team!

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