Adding $8.5 million for other projects, County Commission settles on uses for about $908 million in penny sales tax revenue anticipated for 2025-2039, if referendum passes in November

On Feb. 23, further debate expected on ballot language requesting voter approval for issuance of bonds to accelerate projects

This is a breakdown of proposed funding from the Surtax IV program for county projects, by category, that staff presented to the commissioners at the beginning of their Feb. 8 discussion. Image courtesy Sarasota County

This week, the Sarasota County commissioners added extra projects to the county’s list for funding if voters in November approve the continuation of the penny sales tax — or surtax — program for another 15 years.

“The tax is applied to the first $5,000 of any single taxable item at the time of purchase,” a county slide explained. The first iteration of the surtax program won voter approval in June 1989. Altogether, if what would be known as the Surtax IV Program passes in November, it would go into effect after the Surtax III Program ends on Dec. 31, 2024, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho has pointed out.

Staff projections show the county would receive approximately $908.2 million out of the estimated $2 billion in revenue that would be raised through the latest program, from 2025 through 2039, he noted during a special commission meeting on Feb. 8.

Prior to the discussion, staff had worked on a list that would use all but $17 million of the county’s share of the sales tax funds, Botelho said. The board members’ recommendations on Feb. 8 took $8.5 million out of that total.

Commissioners Nancy Detert and Ron Cutsinger expressed the desire to keep a certain amount of anticipated revenue on hold — “having a cushion,” as Cutsinger described it.

The commissioners this week also voted unanimously to approve the proposed ballot question for the Surtax IV referendum.

This is the draft of the November 2022 ballot question, seeking voter approval for the Surtax IV program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

However, both Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler voiced concerns about the language of a second proposed ballot amendment for the November General Election. That one was crafted to seek voter approval for the county to be able to issue up to $400 million in bonds to speed up construction of projects, if the majority of voters support the Surtax IV Program.

Botelho reminded the commissioners that a borrowing cap in the Sarasota County Charter limits the amount of bonds they can issue, absent voter endorsement. Without the bonding capability, he added, the county would not be able to start pursuing many of the projects on the Surtax IV list until 2025, when the first of the new penny sales tax revenue would become available.

Moreover, he told the board members, if the county could issue one set of bonds totaling $100 million or $125 million, instead of pursuing four or five borrows of $25 million each, for example, that would save more than $250,000 in bond-related expenses.

After voters approved the Surtax III program in 2007, Botelho explained, the county ended up conducting a May 2008 referendum in which voters agreed to allow the county to issue bonds to accelerate projects on the Surtax III list.

This is the bond issuance question proposed for the November 2022 ballot, in conjunction with the county’s seeking approval of the Surtax IV program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Interest rates are at a historically, generational low,” Commissioner Cutsinger pointed out, in favoring the second ballot question. Chair Alan Maio agreed.

However, Moran talked about the potential risk of putting the passage of the Surtax IV Program in peril by including the bonding question on the November ballot.

Ziegler said that the county’s intent did not seem as clear in that second question. Members of the public have expressed concerns to him, he noted.

Commissioner Detert said she had heard the same concerns about the language, but no matter how may times she had tried to rewrite that second ballot question, staff had found her versions deficient. Because of state law, she pointed out, the question cannot exceed 75 words, and the language has to satisfy certain legal requirements.

She added that the last sentence of the question does note that the issuance of the bonds would be dependent on the passage of the Surtax IV Program.

If the commissioners had to conduct a second referendum later on the bonding question, she added, people would think they were seeking approval of yet another penny of sales tax.

This is a history of the penny sales tax program in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I would say trust the voters,” Detert told her colleagues, “and then we can get the projects started sooner at the lower interest rate.”

“I think we can trust the voters, hopefully … to understand the language here,” Cutsinger said, concurring with her on that second ballot question.

When the board members voted on Detert’s motion calling for the inclusion of the second question on the November General Election ballot, the motion passed 3-2, with Maio joining Detert and Cutsinger in supporting it. Nonetheless, Maio had told his colleagues before the vote, “I would much rather this goes through with unanimous approval.”

Ultimately, Maio suggested that a commissioner could work with Botelho, or County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, or the staff of the Office of the County Attorney, to try to revise the language of that second ballot question before the board discusses the Surtax IV program again on Feb. 23.

“I appreciate that,” Moran replied. “I’ll do exactly that, Chair.”

On March 29 — following that final project review on Feb. 23 — staff plans the formal public hearing on the Surtax IV list, including initiatives approved by each of the municipalities in the county, as well as the Sarasota County School Board, Botelho said.

This is the revenue distribution forecast, if Surtax IV wins voter approval. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The surtax program was designed to provide 25% of all proceeds to the Sarasota County School District, with the remainder of the money divided up among the county and the municipalities on the basis of population figures issued by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). The county has an ordinance in place that requires the allocation of at least 50% of the revenue to transportation projects.

During the discussion this week, Botelho also noted that a staff analysis had shown that tourists and other visitors to the county have contribute more than 20% of the surtax revenue.

The additional projects

During his opening remarks on Feb. 8, Botelho showed the board members a slide that broke down the staff recommendations for the use of the Surtax IV revenue by category. The amount dedicated to transportation initiatives had been estimated at $461.7 million, followed by “Environment & Water Quality” at $128.6 million and “Public Safety” at $80.1 million. The lowest level of funding — $600,000 — was set aside for “Criminal Justice” projects.

This is one of the projects that the county’s Enterprise Information Technology staff has planned, if the Surtax IV program wins voter approval. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He would be using an interactive spreadsheet, Botelho explained, so he could adjust any of the staff recommendations at the request of the commissioners.

After the directors of the county’s departments offered remarks on their top priorities, none of the commissioners offered any proposals for shifts in funding. However, referencing those comments and documents provided to them, they began suggesting their own proposals.

The commissioners settled on the following additions to the county’s Surtax IV Program list:

  • $1.5 million more for technology initiatives. Commissioner Moran pointed out that no one had any idea what equipment might be needed in the future. When previous board members were discussing the project list for the Surtax III Program, he said, no one had a smartphone, for example.
  • $2.5 million for improvements at the Selby Aquatic Center located at 8501 Potter Park Drive in Sarasota; the Sarasota Sharks program uses that facility.

“This board is very astute in knowing the difference between an expense and an investment,” Moran said in proposing that funding. His understanding, he continued, is that “we’re not even on the list for eligible competitions” because of the need for a warm-up pool. The improvements, he stressed, would be “a huge economic driver,” adding to the county’s sports tourism revenue.

A document in the agenda packet explained the need for a pool that would measure 25 meters by 25 meters. It could be used for swimming lessons and make the launch of new programs possible at the facility, the document noted.

In response to commissioners’ questions, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, said she believes the county “absolutely” could win bids for more events to be held at the Selby Aquatic Center, if the improvements were completed. Yet, though the estimate for the expense was $2.5 million, she noted, a firmer figure would be available after the design of the project has been finished.

This is an image of the Selby Aquatic Center, with information about the facilities, as shown on the Visit Sarasota County website. Image courtesy Visit Sarasota County

Commissioner Ziegler agreed with Moran. “We’ve set ourselves up to be one of the premier aquatic/swimming/training facilities in the country.” Because of the weather in Florida in the winter, Ziegler continued, collegiate rowing teams have been training for years at Benderson Park.

Further, Ziegler noted, families use the Selby Aquatic Center.

Ziegler brought up this idea during his board report on Jan. 25.

The goal, he said, would be to give residents and visitors real-time information about the number of parking spaces left at each beach. The figures could be displayed on an electronic sign on U.S. 41, and they could be updated regularly on an app that members of the public could download. If people saw too few parking spots were left to make it worth their while to drive over to Siesta, he pointed out, that should prompt them to visit another beach. Therefore, fewer drivers would be roaming Siesta’s roads and streets, looking for spaces.

These are details about the plans for the new county History Center, if the November Surtax IV referendum passes. Image courtesy Sarasota County
  • $1 million for library books. Commissioner Detert offered that suggestion. Among project ideas that members of the public had submitted for county staff consideration — which did not make the final list for the board to review on Feb. 8 — was an item that said, “We don’t need a new library, we need more books!” Staff had added a notation that such an expense would be eligible for the Surtax IV funding.
  • $250,000 for the Venetian Urban Forest, which Detert also proposed. The money would go primarily toward the production of educational materials explaining the indigenous plants and other features of the property, to enhance the public’s enjoyment of the area.
This is the banner on the Venice Urban Forest website. Image from the website

The Venice Urban Forest “has been created to provide habitat for birds, and animals, cooling and much needed [carbon] sequestration, oxygen regeneration and [stormwater] absorption,” its website says. Venice Area Beautification Inc. is the entity behind the project, which is located at 308 E. Venice Ave.

If more county funds were available for that undertaking, Anderson said, that would help staff in its efforts to win additional money from the Sarasota Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization or the state.

Commissioner Ziegler also expressed support for that idea. “I drive on it almost every day,” he said of Honore Avenue. “It’s a nightmare.”

Anderson did explain that the design work would not be completed for 12 to 18 months. After that has been finished, he said, staff would have a better idea of the total expense of the project.

• $250,000 for initiatives of the Master Gardeners program that is part of the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension operation in the county. Commissioner Cutsinger pointed to the work the Master Gardeners have done to improve water quality countywide, noting that they need the money for a greenhouse and for creating a manual on stormwater pond management.