City Commission sets Parks and Recreation District millage rate at zero, setting up $7.2 million transfer to that district for next fiscal year

City staff recommends that option among three it had presented to the board

The City Commission sits in session on Aug. 20, 2019. File photo

In the wake of Sarasota City Commission indecision last week over whether to set a millage rate for the city’s new Parks and Recreation District, city staff proposed a different recommendation on July 15.

This time, staff sought to ensure that no confusion would arise for property owners looking at their Truth in Millage notices. Ultimately, the commissioners voted late during the night of July 15 to set no millage rate for the Parks and Recreation District they created last year.

Once again, on July 15, city Financial Administration Director Kelly Strickland sat before the board members to address the necessity of their approving not-to-exceed millage rates for the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices that have to go out to property owners in August, according to state law.

After the vote that night, she explained, the commission could not raise the millage rate for its General Fund, which largely is made up of property tax revenue. Under state law, the TRIM notices must show the maximum amount of taxes property owners would have to pay.

During a special meeting on July 9, Strickland presented three options to the commissioners for the General Fund and the new district. As staff had recommended no General Fund millage increase for the 2020 fiscal year, the options were designed to incorporate a decision on the future of funding Parks and Recreation Department operations.

With Option 1, Strickland said, the commissioners could set the millage rate at 2.5963 for the General Fund and then set a millage rate of 0.6669 for the Parks and Recreation District. The two figures would add up to the same total millage rate that they approved for the current fiscal year.

However, Strickland cautioned on July 9 and again on July 15, the vote on the Parks and Recreation District millage would have to be unanimous, since the commission formally would be establishing the district.

Option 2 called for setting the General Fund millage rate at 3.2632. The resulting tax payments would generate the $7,217,697 staff had proposed to be raised through the millage rate specifically designated for the Parks and Recreation District in its first year.

If the board members voted for that option, Strickland continued, then staff would bring them a budget amendment to transfer the $7.2 million from the General Fund to the district.

Option 3 called for setting the General Fund millage rate at 3.2632 and the Parks and Recreation District millage at 0.669, with the intention of the commissioners lowering the General Fund millage rate at their final public hearing on the 2020 fiscal year budget, which is set for Sept. 16.

As the commissioners were coming to the end of their regular meeting on July 15, staff recommended Option 2, Strickland said.

It was close to 11:30 p.m.

These are the three millage options staff presented to the board on July 9. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Parks and Recreation District millage would be zero in that option, she added.

“I agree with you about adopting Option 2,” Mayor Liz Alpert responded. However, Alpert asked, what would happen with the Parks and Recreation District if the majority of the commissioners voted against Option 2?

A separate vote would be taken on the millage for the Parks and Recreation District, Strickland replied.

Commissioner Willie Shaw ended up making a motion to approve the Parks and Recreation District millage at zero, and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded the motion.

“This doesn’t have to be unanimous to be zero, right?” Alpert asked Strickland.

“No,” Strickland responded.

Then City Attorney Robert Fournier addressed Strickland: “You changed your mind from last week.”

During the July 9 special meeting, staff proposed the commissioners adopt the separate millage rates for the General Fund and the Parks and Recreation District.

As commissioners prepared to vote on July 15, Alpert told her colleagues, “I just don’t feel comfortable with it.”

Shaw reiterated that his motion would set the Parks and Recreation District millage rate at zero.

Kelly Strickland. Image contributed by City of Sarasota

Strickland pointed out — as she had on July 9 — that if the board members set the 0.669 millage rate for the district and kept the General Fund millage at 3.2632, “The taxpayer’s going to see his rate increased.”

On July 9, she explained that the General Fund millage at 3.2632, plus the Parks and Recreation District millage, would mean a 20% increase for taxpayers. City Manager Tom Barwin then added that if the board approved that option, staff would work to educate the public that the board’s intention would be to lower the General Fund millage rate in September.

After Strickland on July 15 offered a recap of that July 9 discussion, Alpert said, “I understand all that.” Still, Alpert said, she was concerned about what would happen if the zero millage rate for the Parks and Recreation District did not pass and the board then had to vote on a total millage rate for the General Fund.

Finally, all the board members cast their votes, and Shaw’s motion carried 5-0.

A July 17 city news release pointed out that, with the overall General Fund millage remaining unchanged from the rate for the current fiscal year, a homeowner whose house is valued at $200,000 would pay $699.42 a year, or $58.28 per month in city taxes.

“Only about 25 percent of all Florida municipalities have a lower millage rate,” the news release noted.

The two public hearings on the city’s proposed 2020 fiscal year budget are set for Sept. 3 and Sept. 16 at City Hall in downtown Sarasota.

Videos of the workshops the commission held on July 8 and 9, during which they discussed facets of the proposed 2020 fiscal year budget, are available on the city’s website. A person can click on the “Meetings/Agendas/Video link on the homepage.

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