Change in calculations of stormwater assessments spurs residents’ complaints during County Commission’s first hearing on 2023 fiscal year budget

County Commission approved new methodology in July that puts emphasis on impervious property

On July 13, during their final regular meeting before their four-week summer break, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 4-1 to approve a stormwater rate adjustment that members of the county’s Public Works Department had recommended, following a detailed analysis of how the county had been assessing property owners.

Commissioner Michael Moran cast the “No” vote.

Amanda Boone, senior manager of the county’s Stormwater Division, stressed that the goal is to protect water quality.

“One of the largest changes with this,” she explained of the proposed new methodology, “is a shift from property class being the basis for assessment to impervious area being the basis for assessment.”

“Impervious” means that water does not soak through the material, such as asphalt or concrete.
The new methodology, she added, is considered throughout the stormwater industry “to be the most fair and equitable way to assess properties so that no one is subsidizing anyone else.”

The changes also corrected some earlier determinations that areas on parcels were pervious when they were not, Boone pointed out.

A July 13 PowerPoint presentation for the commissioners explained that the shift in methodology allows county staff to obtain a “[d]irect objective measure of a property’s impact on the public stormwater system.”

Considerable public outreach had been undertaken, Boone added, to ensure that the public was aware of the county proposal.

One PowerPoint slide listed dates of seven public workshops and outreach efforts to specific stakeholder groups, including the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and the City of Sarasota, as the county provides stormwater services for the city.

The only two speakers during the public hearing voiced support for the plan.

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton noted that the county’s Stormwater Environmental Utility was created in 1989. That followed recognition of the environmental impacts that stormwater — with its pollutants — was having on Sarasota Bay, he said.

“From the outset of the discussions,” he noted, “water quality was always the focus.”

The second speaker was Robert Wright, who worked for the county for years as leader of the Neighborhood Environmental Stewardship Team. He added that he is a member of the county’s citizens advisory committee on stormwater.

“We are fully in support [of the staff recommendation],” Wright said. “You’re going in the right direction. I think this is going to be a more equitable program for the taxpayer.”

Yet, on the evening of Sept. 14, when the county commissioners conducted their first public hearing on the proposed county budget for the 2023 fiscal year — which will begin Oct. 1 — they heard protests about the new assessment schedule from residents with agricultural interests.

One speaker, David Schneider, who lives on East Road, complained that his assessment last year was $96. His Truth in Millage (TRIM) notice this year showed that that would jump to $1,550. The hike was based on his driveways, his parking lots, his greenhouse and storage areas having been designated impervious, he said. “It doesn’t seem fair.”

A Sarasota News Leader check of Schneider’s property record, as shown on the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office website, found that his land totals close to 19.4 acres.

Another speaker complained that county staff is designating shell and gravel driveways as impervious.

Robbie Martin, president of the Sarasota County Farm Bureau, pointed out, “Agriculture has a $70-billion annual impact on the state’s economy.”

He noted that the Farm Bureau has more than 1,700 member families and about 125 active agricultural members.

Calling the new stormwater assessment methodology a “blanket approach,” he added that it “is not fair …”

His stormwater assessment is up 176%, he said.

How to proceed?

Following the public comments, Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested that it was too late to adjust the new stormwater assessments, which were on the agenda that evening for final approval.

Chief Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow explained, “The assessment rates must be set by Sept. 15,” which was the following day.”

“What happens if we were to defeat this today?” Commissioner Christian Ziegler asked.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis reminded the board members that staff had discussed the new assessments with them on three occasions. The changes were based on the new methodology, Lewis added.

“I understand,” Ziegler responded. Yet, he continued, “There’s obviously a vote today.” What would happen, Ziegler asked again, if the new assessment schedule were defeated that evening?

“If you chose not to do an assessment,” Senkow replied, “that would have a significant budgetary impact on the [county’s] operations.”

“Obviously,” Lewis said, “we have a stormwater utility.” Without revenue from the assessments, Lewis pointed out, the county’s Stormwater Environmental Utility would not be able to function in the next fiscal year.

“I haven’t heard much from the ag community,” Ziegler said. “Did you guys expect this reaction?” Perhaps Schneider’s situation was an extreme example, Ziegler acknowledged.

Spencer Anderson, director of the Public Works Department, reminded Ziegler that staff switched from using classes of property for assessment purposes to the calculations of amounts of pervious and impervious area. “The imperviousness is the best practice of the industry of stormwater utilities to base an assessment on,” Anderson added.

Staff already had been using that factor in approving site and development plans for new construction, he pointed out.

“Was a cap considered?” Ziegler asked.

“It was thought about,” Anderson responded. When staff members analyzed the changes in assessments for individual property owners, he continued, they found that “roughly 20% of the accounts are getting a reduction,” while another 70% will see an increase below $100.

“Nothing stops us from moving forward tonight and then this could be adjusted next year?” Ziegler asked.

“It could,” Anderson told him. “That very well may be considered, yes.”

“We knew this would be controversial,” Commissioner Detert pointed out, “and you’re trying to balance it and make it fair to everyone.”

Then she asked Anderson whether property owners have means to file complaints about their assessments.

Anderson replied that they do. “We’ve had that process in place for weeks.” Staff created a webpage through which people could submit a form, Anderson explained. Then, he said, staff would send someone out to look at the property to determine whether the assessment was correct.

A site-specific adjustment can be made, he added.

Then Boone of the Stormwater Division stepped to the podium to note, “Adjustments have been made. … It is incumbent on the property owner to reach out to us.”

Staff would continue to make adjustments as needed, she said.

Commissioner Moran noted that staff had conducted “a lot of discussion on this matter,” during one-on-one sessions with the commissioners and during public meetings. “This isn’t a rash, quick decision.”

Moreover, Moran said, any methodology that county staff comes up with has to be checked by an independent party to determine the accuracy of it, before the methodology is implemented.

“We don’t take this lightly,” Chair Alan Maio said.

Finally, Detert made the motion to approve the new stormwater assessments, and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger seconded it. With Moran dissenting, it passed 4-1.

The budget and the millage rates

In separate action on Sept. 14, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the tentative budget for the 2023 fiscal year and the proposed millage rates. The final hearing will be conducted at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the County Administration Center standing at 1660 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.

As the agenda materials for that hearing note, the final budget adds up to $1,143,951,123.

Additionally, the board members will vote on the Capital Projects budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which is $176,732,032. Although they approve a new five-year Capital Projects Program annually, to reflect all plans for county construction through that period, staff has explained that only the initiatives set forth for the first of those five years are expected to be pursued. Commissioners in the following years can call for changes in the plans.

Further, the final, proposed countywide millage rate for the 2023 fiscal year is 3.4463 mills. The General Operating millage is 3.2497 mills, which represents a 15.04% increase of the rolled-back rate of 2.8249 mills, a county resolution explains.

The “rolled-back” rate is the figure that would be used to bring in the same amount of revenue for the 2023 fiscal year that the county received in the current fiscal year. Because property values in the county went up about 17.76% this year, even without a millage rate increase, property owners are likely to shoulder higher tax bills.

Each mill represents $1,000 of taxable value.

During remarks as part of the Sept. 14 hearing, County Administrator Lewis noted that the commissioners had not increased the millage rate for 23 years, through the 2023 fiscal year. The only increases had come from changes in debt service to cover the bonds that voters authorized during the 2018 General Election to pay for the extensions of The Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota and from Venice to North Port.

(Chair Maio had told one speaker that the board had lowered the millage rate through the past couple of decades.)

For FY 2023, the debt service millage for The Legacy Trail is lower than it was this year, Lewis noted.

Adding in the Mosquito Control District millage rate of 0.0500 mills, plus the debt service millage of 0.0915 mills for the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, along with The Legacy Trail debt service millage of 0.0551 mills, the total millage for FY 2023 is 3.8321 mills, the budget resolution says. That marks a 14.52% increase over the aggregate rolled-back rate of 3.3462, the resolution points out.