City manager already has given county staff a ‘heads up’ about the potential for the process
With the city attorney having provided all the background last month, it took slightly less than 12 minutes on Oct. 3 for the Sarasota City Commission to vote unanimously to bill Sarasota County for about $4.5 million as the county’s 30th and final payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Development Area (CRA) Trust Fund.
The City Commission also will pursue resolution of its disagreement with the county over that last CRA tax bill, using the guidelines of the Florida Governmental Conflict Resolution Act (Florida State Statute 164), an option City Attorney Robert Fournier explained during the city board’s regular meeting on Sept. 6.
“We need to be in a position of strength here,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell pointed out before making the motion calling for both actions. “This is critical funding, what we are seeking here.”
Commissioner Liz Alpert added, “I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s just too much money to just sit back and say, ‘Oh, we’re afraid that we might not be able to get along with the county’” if the board pursued conflict resolution.
As for that final bill, Alpert said, “I think we’ve got a really good argument.”
As directed in the motion, city staff will send the county not only the final tax bill but also a letter and a copy of a resolution stating the City Commission’s intent to initiate the conflict resolution procedures provided by state law. Within 10 days after receipt of the resolution and letter, the county may elect to participate in the process or it may decide not to do so, Fournier told the board. Regardless of what it chooses to do, he said, the first step would be for the city to seek the scheduling of a “conflict assessment meeting” involving the appropriate top city and county administrative personnel, during which they would try to resolve the issue. County leaders, however, are not obligated to participate in such a session, Fournier pointed out. If they choose to forgo that option, he said, then it is up to the City Commission to decide whether to file suit against the county over the matter.
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown explained that if the city does pursue litigation, “the judge can then force the conflict resolution process. We are trying to get [the county’s] voluntary participation in this.”
“This is a big step,” Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie replied, adding that it could have an impact on future joint city/county ventures.
That was one reason, Fournier told her, “we didn’t want to proceed too hastily down this path and do a lot of talk [in September] about filing a suit prematurely.”
In conjunction with September 2015 votes approving its 2016 fiscal year budget, the County Commission put a formal end to its payments into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund as of last year. A letter Commission Chair Al Maio sent the city in April — after the CRA final payment dispute had begun — says the county has paid approximately $65.7 million into that trust fund.
However, Assistant City Manager, John Lege — who has helmed the city Finance Department —provided documentation months ago showing how accounting for tax-increment finance districts work; that has convinced city staff and city commissioners the county owes one more payment into the trust fund.
The Downtown Sarasota CRA was established in 1986, but no payments were made into the trust fund until the following year, Lege has pointed out. A tax-increment financing district has a baseline year for which the value of all its property is determined, as Fournier has explained. Each subsequent year, the comparison of the latest value of that property to the baseline determines the amount of money that goes into the trust fund.
County commissioners also have complained that too much of the CRA funding went to purposes normally covered through the city’s General Fund — including downtown policing — when, in fact, the goal of the CRA was to remove “slum and blight,” as indicated in the documents establishing the area.
During the City Commission’s Oct. 3 regular meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin noted that the $4.5 million sought from the county for the 2016 tax year could be used to assist the city with three of its highest priorities: traffic congestion in the downtown area; the planning for a cultural district on 42 acres of bayfront property the city owns; and continuing “the tremendous momentum that is underway in North Sarasota … at this very vital time.”
“It is probably worth working through this [state process] to see if we can have a resolution,” Barwin told the board.
The pros and cons
During the Oct. 3 discussion, Freeland Eddie asked, “What actually gets talked about” during the conflict assessment meeting as described in the state statute. “Is it even worth it?”
Fournier replied that because the statute has to cover so many possibilities, it does not offer any indication about how that meeting would be conducted. However, he continued, he would expect city staff to take the opportunity, for example, to talk about how the CRA money has been used.
The Whole Foods in downtown Sarasota is among projects cited as signs of the CRA’s success. The State Street parking garage is among the more recent examples of how the funding was spent. That garage opened in the fall of 2015.
If nothing can be achieved through that initial discussion — or subsequent, similar sessions — then the next step would be for the two local government bodies to hold a joint meeting, the statute says. That would have to occur within 50 days of the county’s receipt of the original letter and resolution, the statute notes. Mediation before or after the joint session of the city and county boards also is an option.
When Mayor Willie Shaw asked for confirmation that the city has brought suit against the county in the past, Fournier responded, “Sure.”
Yet the two boards still collaborate well together, Shaw indicated.
When Freeland Eddie asked whether city staff already had tried to talk with county staff about the CRA issue, Barwin told her, “I have given the [county] staff a heads up that we may be at the table soon to attempt to resolve this.”
Referring to the city’s recent efforts to obtain one more county CRA trust fund payment, Atwell pointed out, “If we keep doing this, we’re going around in circles … I don’t know what will happen.” That was another reason to pursue resolution as provided for by the state, she said.