City Commission approves proposed budget and higher millage rate on 3-2 votes on first readings

Final public hearings set for Sept. 17

This is the proposed City of Sarasota budget for the 2019 fiscal year, compared to the current budget. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Mirroring their previous votes, Commissioners Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie this week again opposed the City of Sarasota budget as proposed for the 2019 fiscal year.

They cast “No” votes not only on the budget this week but also on the proposed millage rate for the new fiscal year, which will rise from 3.1728 to 3.2632.

The owner of a home with a taxable value of $200,000 would pay an additional $18.08 per year, if the board gives final approval to the new millage rate on Sept. 17, Kelly Strickland, the city’s director of financial administration, has pointed out.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion during the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 4 to approve the proposed millage rate for FY19, and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded it. Shaw and Ahearn-Koch duplicated those actions when Mayor Liz Alpert asked for action on the proposed new city budget. Both times, Alpert joined Ahearn-Koch and Shaw in the majority on the 3-2 votes.

The resolution the commissioners officially approved on Sept. 4 noted that the new millage rate is 7.35% higher than the aggregate “rolled-back” rate of 3.1460. The rolled-back rate is the rate needed to generate the same amount of property tax revenue the city received for the current fiscal year. As Strickland noted during her presentation this week, the new city budget will reflect an 8.87% increase in taxable property values in the city.

Strickland told the board members that the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office valued all taxable property in the city at $10,499,678,769 as of July 1. The millage rate, as proposed for FY19, will generate an extra $33,011,898 in ad valorem tax revenue for the General Fund, according to a slide Strickland showed the commissioners.

The total proposed city budget for the new fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1, is $230,769,220, which is up 14% compared to the budget for this fiscal year.

Kelly Strickland. Image contributed by City of Sarasota

Strickland did explain that, in checking figures again after the city budget workshops this summer, she determined that the budget total she previously gave the commissioners was incorrect. Her original calculations, she said, failed to include the revenue expected to be generated by parking meters on St. Armands Circle, which will become operational in December in conjunction with the opening of the St. Armands parking garage. Although that revenue is considered an enterprise fund, Strickland said, it still has to be included in the budget. Therefore, the total proposed budget is up about $1.3 million from the version the commissioners last saw in July, she added.

“Enterprise funds are funded with user fees, so this has no effect on the General Fund,” she explained.

Both Freeland Eddie and Brody criticized city staff again on Sept. 4 for keeping $250,000 set aside in the proposed budget for a body camera program for the Sarasota Police Department. During the board’s budget workshops in June, Freeland Eddie stressed, Chief Bernadette DiPino made it clear that $1 million would be closer to the actual expense of such a program.

The commissioners have not settled on any plans to spend the $250,000 that Strickland has called a “placeholder” for the body camera operations.

Brody also repeated his criticism of staff’s linking the millage rate increase to the city’s having to take over management of five city parks that Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department previously supervised and maintained. Strickland noted that the net cost of that shift is expected to be $914,546 in the 2019 fiscal year. The County Commission agreed in July to provide a total supplement of $2,645,046 to the city’s Parks and Recreation budget over the next three years, while the transition takes place. In July, both commissions voted to approve a new interlocal agreement governing parks management; the county board had sought that in an effort to improve the county’s budget outlook for coming years.

A chart provides information about the city’s property tax revenue. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I think it’s just shocking … I think it’s just complete spin,” Brody told Strickland on Sept. 4, referring to city staff’s explanation that the proposed millage rate increase is a necessity because of the parks issue. “I think that this commission needs to force the city’s hand,” he added, and require staff to deliver a budget with expenses not exceeding revenue generated by the current millage rate. “We have a bloated budget.”

“I would like to remind my fellow commissioner, with all due respect, he voted in favor of a $1.2-million building to store records that could have been saved overall and maybe would have filled this gap [created by taking over the parks],” Mayor Alpert said.

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert. File photo

Alpert has been a consistent critic of City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini’s request for the relocation of the city’s Central Records Division to a structure where staff and documents will not have to face threats from rainfall intrusion. The estimate the board has heard for purchase of a building on 17thStreet and the outfitting of it for the Central Records Division is about $1.2 million.

“That item is not funded in this budget,” Freeland Eddie told Alpert, “so your comment is just not accurate.”

(During their Aug. 20 meeting, the board members voted to seek an extension of the period for conducting due diligence on the 17thStreet structure, so staff could determine the building’s hurricane rating and its flood map designation. The seller was willing to grant that extension, so the purchase contract will be on a future commission agenda.)

‘Too much too soon’

Freeland Eddie also reminded her colleagues that she had suggested they phase in additional staff for the Parks and Recreation Department, after determining with greater certainty how many new people the city would need to employ. She also felt staff was moving too quickly to implement a city recycling program, which a contractor previously handled, she added. “I think that we have taken on too much too soon.”

Even with the extra $11 million provided by the property value increase, Freeland Eddie pointed out, “We’re still over budget.”

“There are counties across this state that are cutting taxes,” Brody said, “because times are good.” If city staff cannot deliver to the board a budget without a tax increase during a period when the economy is doing well, he added, what will happen “when it’s not all roses?”

Martin Hyde. Image from his 2019 campaign website

Only one person addressed the board during the public hearing on the proposed new millage rate: business owner Martin Hyde, a 2019 commission candidate and a frequent critic of the board’s actions.

“I’m wearing black for good reason,” he said. He had received his Truth in Millage (TRIM) notice from the Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office, he continued. His taxes will total $14,979.75, Hyde said, partly because of what he called the city’s “profligate waste.”

For one example, he cited a commission decision on Aug. 20 to pay $100,461.40 to buy 47 new golf carts, as well as to rent another 20 during high tourist season, for use at the city-owned Bobby Jones Golf Club. The club has been losing money because of its deteriorated facilities. Freeland Eddie and Brody voted against the purchase and rental agreement.

For another example, Hyde noted continuing city legal payments, including those involving the original contractor’s plans for Lift Station 87 in Luke Wood Park. Those plans could have severely damaged the Hudson Bayou bridge, a later investigation showed.

Hyde also deplored raises for the directors of city departments who, he said already are making “substantial six-figure salaries.”