Two commissioners express support for more public engagement prior to passage of annual budget
This week, after the Sarasota city commissioners held their second and final required hearing on the city’s proposed budget for the 2023-24 fiscal year, they unanimously approved the spending plan and the total, or aggregate, millage rate of 3.158 mills.
The city’s general operating millage rate, a flat 3 mills, was unchanged from the figure for the current fiscal year, which will end on Sept. 30.
The aggregate millage rate includes 0.1580 mills for debt service on General Obligation Bonds, as city Finance Director Kelly Strickland has pointed out.
The aggregate millage rate is 10.48% higher than the aggregate rolled-back rate of 2.778 mills.
The “rolled-back” rate is the figure necessary to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue that the city anticipated for the current fiscal year. Because the city’s overall property value climbed 13.3% this year, compared to the 2022 certified value, taxpayers will see higher bills, even with the operating millage having been kept flat.
One mill represents $1,000 of the value of a parcel within the city.
The 2023-24 city budget totals $286,713,513, which is up 13.81%, compared to the current budget.
The General Fund, which has the fewest spending constraints, adds up to $97,455,278 for the next fiscal year. That marks a 13.54% hike, compared to the General Fund amount for this fiscal year.
By far, the largest amount of the budget in the 2024 fiscal year will go to the Sarasota Police Department: $46,690,444. The second-highest amount is that for the Parks & Recreation Department: $11,395,448.
Among other details, city staff anticipates $12,908,684 from its Utilities Excise Tax; $704,560 from building and other permit fees;
$2,759,300 in Local Option Fuel Tax revenue; and $945,436 in Local Business Tax revenue.
A public request for more public engagement in the process
No members of the public signed up to address the commissioners during the second public hearing.
However, during the first hearing — conducted on Sept. 5 — David Lough, president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (DSCA), who pointed out that he was speaking for himself that evening — explained that he may have misunderstood the public engagement process. He had expected the commissioners to conduct one more public hearing on the proposed budget following the board’s late-July workshops on it, he said, before they voted on the spending plan for the first time that evening.
He noted that the commission’s rules of procedure do not allow public comments at workshops.
Then Lough pointed out that he recently had circulated data from the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) in regard to the city’s growing population. BEBR’s staff estimates that the number of city residents has climbed by 3.9% over the past three years, he said.
“If we continue at about this pace,” Lough added, “we’ll grow about 12% in population between now and 2030. That’s six or seven thousand more people.”
Lough then reminded the commissioners that he tracks construction in the city, principally in the downtown area. “We have roughly 1,000 units under construction as we speak,” he noted.
“I would urge you to consider what’s happening in our city,” Lough continued, referring to the growth trend.
Additionally, Lough suggested that the commissioners and city staff sometimes “put too much pressure on obtaining grants to fund projects.” Winning the funding, he said, is “kind of a crapshoot sometimes, particularly in this political climate.”
This summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed all of the funding for projects that the City Commission had requested in the new state budget.
Following Lough’s remarks, City Manager Brown reminded the board members that, while they do not accept comments at workshops, they did conduct a special meeting on July 25 after they concluded their discussions about the proposed budget for the next fiscal year. Any individual would have been welcome to address them at that special meeting, Brown added.
Such a special meeting is standard city practice, following the budget workshops, Brown said. “That is the opportunity for Mr. Lough and others to also weigh in …” After listening to the public, Brown continued, if the commissioners decided on budget adjustments based on the remarks, they could direct city staff to incorporate those into the proposed budget for consideration during the two required hearings each year.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch told Brown, “I think that it would be really great if we could engage the community more. … I think anything we can do to increase the community’s engagement — to invite them into the process — would be a positive step.”
Commissioner Erik Arroyo concurred with Ahearn-Koch.
Brown also reminded the board members that staff proposes the budget calendar every January. “Maybe that’s an opportunity for you to say, ‘OK, can you insert one or two more meetings?’ and we would be more than happy to do it.”
“Excellent,” Ahearn-Koch responded.