Big budget questions for County Commission in future years will be linked to homestead exemption referenda on November ballot

Efforts continue to sell surplus county land

A graphic shows estimated figures for Sarasota County budgets in coming years if two referenda on the November ballot do not pass. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As the chair of the Sarasota County Commission put it during the board’s latest workshop on finances, “Right now we’re looing at a bare-bones budget with existing funds [for the 2019 fiscal year].”

That was Nancy Detert’s assessment after she and her colleagues reviewed projections for revenue and expenses for the next fiscal year and for the fiscal years from 2020 through 2023.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis made it clear on March 23 that staff is working on the assumption that the board is not interested in proposals for any new revenue source and that it wants to maintain the current millage rate of 3.3912. The commission is scheduled to set its not-to-exceed millage rate on July 11. Its public hearings on the budget for FY19 are planned for Sept. 12 in Sarasota and Sept. 27 in Venice.

Lewis also indicated that he is hoping for a smoother budget adoption process this year than the one that transpired last summer and fall, when commissioners decided during their first public hearing on the 2018 fiscal year budget that they no longer wished to pursue implementation of a 5% Public Service Tax. That action followed an earlier vote in June 2017 to reject a staff recommendation for a millage increase to 3.4912. Then-County Administrator Tom Harmer and Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho had proposed both the Public Service Tax and the modest rise in the millage rate as a means of starting to rebuild the county’s Economic Uncertainty Fund — the “rainy day” account previous commissions had set aside during the “boom years.” Recent boards have been drawing extensively from that fund in the wake of the Great Recession as they have kept the millage rate stable.

As of the board’s March 23 budget workshop, the Economic Uncertainty Fund had enough money to cover 14 days of county operations: $9,075,104. The goal, Lewis pointed out, is to have enough money for 30 to 60 days.

A chart shows details about several of the county’s reserve funds, including the Economic Uncertainty Fund. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On a 4-1 vote on Sept. 18, 2017, the commissioners agreed to use what was projected to be the last of their Economic Uncertainty Fund to balance the FY18 budget, with discussions to begin in October 2017 on potential cuts to plug the $5.4-million hole the Public Service Tax revenue was projected to fill in the current fiscal year.

Indeed, in workshops since the new fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2017, the board has approved $5.4 million in cuts, Lewis pointed out on March 23. That amount, he stressed, reflected “recurring reductions,” not one-time measures.

During the March 23 budget workshop, Lewis pointed to projections for the next five fiscal years that showed no funding gaps to fill. However, those estimates do not take into account the potential loss of revenue from two referenda that will be on the November 2018 General Election ballot, related to homestead exemptions. If those pass — the result commissioners have indicated they expect — then the board would be looking at finding money to eliminate a shortfall of $8,970,406 in its FY20 budget and an even larger hole — about $10.3 million — in the FY21 budget.

One of those referenda — on Florida Amendment 1 — calls for voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would increase the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000. Sixty percent of Florida voters will have to approve the exemption if it is to become part of the Florida Constitution.

A chart shows future estimates for county budgets if the two referenda on the November ballot pass. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The second referendum — involving Florida Amendment 2 — would make permanent the cap of 10% on annual non-homestead parcel assessments, which is set to expire on Jan. 1, 2019, according to Ballotpedia. In 2008, 64% of voters approved the cap, which does not apply to school districts, Ballotpedia points out. If approved, Amendment 2 would take effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

However, Lewis continued, the revenue-and-expense equation should lead to a leveling off by FY22, with a gap of only $6.4 million expected, if the referenda pass.

The General Fund budget this fiscal year includes about $149.9 million in property tax revenue, Deputy County Administrator Botelho noted. That is up from $138.3 million in FY17, according to a slide prepared for the commission.

Although property values are expected to increase again this year, Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out, the board will be faced with “demand for new and additional services.”

The ongoing quest for surplus lands to sell

One step the commissioners have been taking to add revenue to the General Fund, to supplement property tax revenue, is putting surplus land on the market.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, Lewis said, the county has completed transactions that have produced $4.4 million, with $3.8 million going back into the General Fund. (Staff has explained that if funds from a specific department or account were used to purchase property, proceeds from selling that land must go back to that department or account.)

Staff is continuing a comprehensive review of all county land, Lewis continued — “more than 1,000 separate records” — in an effort to identify all parcels that can be sold. As he indicated during an earlier discussion with the board, every department is being asked to review its holdings, and then an internal group of staff members is taking a look at the results of that process to determine appropriate recommendations to the commission.

A graphic shows changes in property tax revenue for the county since the 2005 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Public Utilities Department probably has the largest holdings of any single department, Lewis said.

If the process continues as he plans, Lewis added, he expects to schedule a presentation for the commission in May, during which department directors will talk about what they believe should be kept and what can be sold.

Chair Detert asked that the discussion include details about why parcels were purchased. For example, she said, some property bought for potential right of way for projects ended up being unused. “I understand that.”

However, she indicated that she also was interested in comments on past purchases “that shouldn’t have been made” and recommendations for preventing such action in the future.

One other facet of the discussion, Lewis responded, will be the future of escheated lots. Those, he explained, are parcels on which owners have not paid taxes for three consecutive years. In such cases, the land becomes the property of the county.

“The majority of those escheated lots happen to be down in North Port,” he said. Staff in the county’s Real Estate Services Division have been working with the staff of the City of North Port, he continued, regarding which parcels might help with future needs of the city.

Detert replied that she felt many of those escheated lots resulted from the inability of people to pay taxes during the Great Recession. With the rebound in the economy, she added, “It’s a good time to say how great North Port’s doing. … I look forward to that discussion.”

Status of specific surplus parcels

A graphic shows the location of the 20 N. Washington Blvd. property. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the budget workshop, Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, reviewed the status of several pieces of county property that have been on the market. Among them is the parcel at 20 N. Washington Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, which serves as a surface parking lot, primarily for the Office of the Clerk of Court and County Comptroller.

“We’ve obviously attempted to sell this property several times,” Lowdermilk said, referring to a number of failed bids over the past five years.

Most recently — in response to commission comments in November 2017 — the parcel was put on the market without any stipulations, Lowdermilk noted.

The county received an offer of $3 million, Lowdermilk told the commissioners on March 23, but that was rejected, because it was below the minimum offer staff had set of $3.8 million. (During the board’s Nov. 28, 2017 budget workshop, staff talked of the expectation that the sale could generate $3,950,000.)

In April 2017, Lowdermilk pointed out, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office set a value of $3,950,000 on the property. However, the broker with which county staff has been working has suggested lowering the price to $3.1 million. Unless the commissioners objected, he said, staff would accept that advice.

Commissioner Michael Moran responded, “I am not showing any cards on this, [but] I think [an offer] would get favorable treatment” if it included a proposal for a parking area to replace what would be lost by development on the site.

Both Moran and Commissioner Alan Maio talked of the one-on-one meetings board members had had with Karen Rushing, clerk of court and county comptroller, regarding worries about losing the surface parking spaces. Maio indicated that county administrative staff is continuing to work with City of Sarasota staff about creating parking spaces on the open parcel where the former headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department stood on Ringling Boulevard, just east of the Silvertooth Judicial Center. “No one is ignoring those needs,” Maio added of the parking demand for people with business in the clerk’s office.

Lowdermilk also provided remarks about the other parcels on the market:

  • The property on the northwest corner at Bee Ridge Road and Aberdeen Drive, which comprises 68,104 square feet: The closing is planned for April 23.
  • The 1.37-acre parcel at the northeast corner of the intersection of Bee Ridge Road and Aberdeen: As part of their March 13 Consent Agenda of routine business items, the commissioners unanimously approved its sale for $138,000.

A March 13 staff memo said Darvin and Lian Boatwright were the buyers.

A graphic shows the property the county sold at the northeast corner of Bee Ridge Road and Aberdeen Drive. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In May 2017, residents living near the property expressed an interest in preserving it in its natural state because of the prevalence of wildlife on it. The board members learned that no neighborhood association existed in that area, so they did not have the option of directing staff to try to negotiate a sale with such an organization. As a result, the commissioners asked staff to work on the sale of the land for a single-family home.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo later asked staff to ascertain that the property would not be needed for stormwater purposes before any sale was negotiated. A March 13 staff memo acknowledged that action: “It has been determined that the County has no future plans to utilize this property.”

Both the Bee Ridge/Aberdeen parcels were left over after the completion of the roundabout on Bee Ridge Road in November 2016. They had been purchased in the event they were needed for right of way, staff has explained.

  • The parcel at 6901 Bee Ridge Road (3.85 acres): The closing also is set for April 23.
  • The parcel at 200 Montana Ave. in Nokomis: The closing is set for May 1.
  • The property at 800 W. Perry St. in Englewood: Eight bids have been received, with several higher than $800,000. The board will be asked to consider a sale as part of its April 10 regular meeting agenda.

That parcel was the focus of commission consternation in late December 2017, when the board members learned that the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) paid $2,203,656 for that property in 2007 with the intent of combining it with an adjacent parcel to create a neighborhood waterfront park. After residents objected to the plans, the County Commission in 2013 put the 800 W. Perry parcel and the adjacent 50 Southwind Drive land up for sale. On Dec. 12, 2017, the commission voted to market the Perry Street land for $550,000 for another 90 days.

The 50 Southwind Drive parcel has been sold.