County property owners pay voter-approved millage each year to fund acquisitions
Over the past few years, Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio often has pointed out during public meetings that approximately one-third of the land in the county has been protected from development through county purchases or establishment of conservation easements.
On Oct. 20, acting in accord with the provisions of a relatively new agenda item for meetings called Board Conversation, Maio brought up a request for periodic presentations by Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), regarding the status of county efforts to preserve natural lands.
He won agreement from his colleagues for that proposal.
Maio noted at the outset of his comments that the county has two advisory boards whose members work with staff to settle on recommendations for the purchase of property through the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP), as well as new parkland, including areas where residents would like to see ball fields built. Those boards are the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee and the Parks Advisory and Recreation Council.
“I think they do a very fine job; very fine,” Maio said of the members of those boards. “They do hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of work …”
As the county’s Land Acquisition webpage explains, voters in March 1999 originally approved the ESLPP by authorizing the county to assess each property owner 0.25 mills in annual ad valorem taxes to pay for protection of native habitats. Then, in November 2005, voters during a second referendum extended the program through 2029 and expanded it to include neighborhood parkland acquisitions.
Maio pointed out on Oct. 20 that 60% of the resulting ad valorem tax revenue is set aside for ESLPP acquisitions, with the remainder reserved for the purchase of new parkland.
Although the amount brought in each year varies, Maio continued, it generally is in the range of $4 million to $4.5 million.
Moreover, Maio stressed, any parcel the county targets for purchase with that funding has to be owned by a willing seller. Acquisitions, he added, should not “impede somebody’s property rights.”
He also reminded his colleagues that the county had set aside $9 million to assist with the purchase of the 5,777-acre Orange Hammock Ranch in the southern part of the county, but state leaders ended up agreeing to buy the parcel. Therefore, he continued, that $9 million is available for other county acquisitions.
Although each commissioner could ask Rissler of PRNR to provide for an individual update on the ESLPP and Neighborhood Parkland programs, Maio said, he believes the public would benefit from hearing the details during a board meeting.
“I think this is the perfect use of this [Board Conversation item] on our agenda,” Commissioner Charles Hines responded.
Because all five of the commissioners are Republicans, Hines continued, they “get attacked” by people who believe they are opposed to environmental protection and conservation efforts. “I just think [such an alleged stance] is totally untrue.”
Referring to the types of parcels available to the county for purchase, Hines added, “These big, big chunks of land, for the most part, have been bought.” Therefore, he said, the two advisory boards need to “hunt and find things that are important,” perhaps as buffers between existing communities — such as Old Miakka — whose residents want to preserve their rural character, and areas proposed for new developments. “There’s options to do that if we are creative,” Hines pointed out.
“Conservation easements are a very useful tool for us to consider, going forward,” Hines noted, referring to action the board took two weeks ago to protect three of the county’s “Quads” parcels adjacent to the Celery Fields stormwater area in the eastern part of the county.
Commissioner Christian Ziegler said he would like to see the periodic reports Maio requested contain details about, perhaps, the last five or 10 ESLPP and Neighborhood Parkland parcels that the county purchased, including the acreage and the price. He added that he also would like to ensure each report provides the total amount of county land preserved from development.
Chair Michael Moran also offered full support for Maio’s proposal.
Every board she ever had served on, Commissioner Nancy Detert added, “has what is known as ‘the dog and pony show’ at the beginning [of its meetings]. … I do think, on occasion,” she continued, the commissioners should consider “showcasing the things that we feel the public should know.” A 15-minute presentation on the lands programs would be “very informative for people that like to view meetings.”
Detert also pointed out that people constantly are moving to Sarasota County. “All of this stuff is new information to our new residents.”
Further, she said, “I think we all, in today’s world, need to work towards building and establishing people’s faith in government in any way that we can.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Chair Moran told her.
Millage rate details
In the backup agenda material for the County Commission’s Sept. 14 public hearing on its 2021 fiscal year budget, staff listed that the ESLPP millage rate at 0.1253. For the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2019, the board approved a millage rate of 0.1317.
When The Sarasota News Leader asked staff this week about the differences between those figures and the voter-approved 0.25 mills for the ESLPP, the Office of Financial Management (OFM) offered an explanation in an Oct. 21 email.
“The total millage for ESLPP is 0.25 mills and always has been,” the OFM response said. “By law, we need to separate the debt portion of the millage into its own millage, but the operating portion of the ESLPP millage is included within the County’s General Operating Millage.”
Then the OFM offered this breakdown on the millage rates for the 2021 fiscal year:
- 2.9241 mills — county operating millage, primarily for the General Fund, which pays for the operations of county departments that do not generate their own funds, plus operations of some of the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the supervisor of elections.
- 0.1247 mills — ESLPP operating millage rate.
- 0.1661 mills — Health and Human Services millage.
- 3.2149 mills — general operating millage.
- 0.1253— debt millage for the ESLPP.
- 0.0688 — debt millage for the bonds issued for The Legacy Trail North Extension and connector to North Port.
“Only the millages in bold are shown on the tax bills, so taxpayers don’t see that 0.1247 ESLPP operating as its own line on their tax bill,” the OFM email added.