County administrator apologizes repeatedly during budget hearing in response to complaints about letter utility customers received indicating $233 jump in annual assessment

Average household will pay about $15 more per year, Jonathan Lewis says

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. File image

He apologized during the regular Sarasota County Commission meeting on Sept. 8, and he apologized three more times on Sept. 13, during the first public hearing on the county’s proposed $1,535,552,427 budget for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

After speakers during the “Open to the Public” period began complaining that the board members planned to raise their FY 2022 solid waste assessment to $233.59 per “Residential Class I Dwelling Unit” in the county’s unincorporated areas, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis explained that the letter stating that information was a miscommunication.

“We met the legal requirements,” he said of the notice, which referenced Section 197.3632 of the Florida Statutes. “What it was not was a communication tool,” Lewis added. “It is not a new assessment. I want to be clear about that.”

Then Lewis stressed, “For most of our customers,” the increase will amount to $1.27 a month for a dwelling unit “over the course of the year.” Thus, he noted, the average customer would pay approximately $15 more during the 2022 fiscal year.

“We apologize to anybody,” Lewis said, who came to the budget hearing that evening because of the letter.

When he opened his own letter, he pointed out, his first thought was, “Oh, boy.” Lewis added, “I knew we could have done it differently.”

Part of the increase is going toward the modernization of services, he continued, reminding the audience members about the start of the single-stream recycling program in January 2020.

“We’re a little bit behind the game,” Lewis acknowledged, in regard to implementing modern practices in solid waste collections.

This chart shows details about the increase in the solid waste assessment for the 2022 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He further noted that the county is closing in on the end of its 20-year contract with Waste Management, which handles all of the garbage, recycling and yard waste pickups for county customers. (That contract expires on Sept. 30, 2024.)

Altogether, Chair Alan Maio reported, the county had received 1,800 phone calls, 39 emails and 171 letters protesting the proposed increase, as laid out in the letter.

In fact, Maio continued, his wife confronted him about it at dinner the day she had read the notice that went to his home. “‘Have you lost your mind?’” Maio said she asked him, prompting laughter among the audience members.

He understood her question, he indicated, after he read the letter.

“I appreciate your explanation about the notice,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler told Lewis. “I personally thought another notice probably should have gone out to fully explain this …”

Lewis talked of expense and timing as the reasons staff did not attempt to clear up the issue with a second letter.

Ziegler did point out to the audience that he routinely examines county staff initiatives to determine whether any mistakes have been made. “It’s very difficult to find [any],” he added.

Complaints and compliments

Rick Wallenda protests the rise in solid waste assessments. News Leader image

Among the speakers who addressed the board members before Lewis offered his remarks, Rick Wallenda held up multiple copies of the letter, explaining that he owns several parcels in North Sarasota.

“They want a raise,” he said, referring to Waste Management. “They give us lousy service.”

Although the garbage truck drivers “are actually very polite,” Wallenda continued, “they do a lousy job. … And you want me to pay more money now? More?!”

David Feagles, who told the board members he has been a county resident for 40 years, also complained about Waste Management. “There’s less trash collection.”

He had read the requirements for the weekly service, he added, and the list says workers will “pick up things unless it’s too much. … This is not an acceptable way to do things.”

Following Lewis’ explanation, Laura Butler still took her opportunity to address the commissioners. “I came here with a heavy heart, angry,” she said. “I have four degrees, so I understand the English language pretty well. This letter was so infuriating and so confusing …”

Yet, Connie Taft thanked Lewis for his explanation. “I can tell that you are contrite,” she said, and she offered a compliment for an assistant county administrator, whom she did not identify, who had spoken with her in the corridor outside the Commission Chambers, before the meeting began.

Addressing the audience members, too, Commissioner Nancy Detert talked of having received the letter and being shocked, as well. She added that her immediate reaction was that she did not recall voting for such an increase.

On a positive note, however, Detert said, “As we close out the public input, this was a chance … for the public to come out in force, and a chance for them to see their own government … and how we operate. This is a complex business with a huge budget …”

Laura Butler reads from a letter her homeowners association prepared for the commission, in opposition to the notice about the solid waste assessment. News Leader image

She told the residents in the Chambers, “You, us, everyone are the government.”

Commissioner Ziegler did ask Lewis how to handle the solid waste assessment during the vote on that agenda item, as it was bundled with other assessments.

Lewis explained that Ziegler could make a motion to amend that item and then include in the motion the direction he wanted to provide about the solid waste fees. For example, Lewis said, the amendment could call for the county to maintain the same level of solid waste assessment that customers are paying this fiscal year.

Because Fire and Rescue District assessments were among those included with the Solid Waste Department fee, Ziegler said, he would refrain from offering an amendment. Instead, Ziegler noted that he wanted to “just put it on the record” that he had been prepared to vote against the increase in that assessment.

Fiscal Year 2022 millage rates addressed

During remarks about the proposed county budget for the 2022 fiscal year, Lewis noted several highlights.

For example, he pointed out, because of a decrease in the county’s debt for The Legacy Trail North Extension to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, as well as the North Port connector, the overall millage rate will be down by 0.0039 mills. (One mill represents $1 per $1,000 value of a home.)

For another example, he noted that the county’s Capital Improvement Program includes 236 projects, for which $339.7 million has been budgeted.

The aggregate rate of 3.8109 mills is 5.09% higher than the rate would be if it were “rolled back.” The latter term refers to maintaining a rate that would bring in the same amount of money in the new fiscal year as in the fiscal year just concluded. Countywide, property values rose in 2021, so maintaining a stable aggregate millage for the county automatically would raise more money.

These are details about the 2022 fiscal year millage rates, included in materials for the Sept. 13 hearing. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Lewis also pointed out that staff had removed from the millage rate the extra 0.10 mills that three of the commissioners voted for in early July, so the county Property Appraiser’s Office could send out the annual Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices showing the maximum taxes a property owner would pay in the 2022 fiscal year.

On Aug. 27, during their final budget workshop, the county commissioners unanimously voted to remove that 0.10 mill from the FY 2022 rate. The funds would have been dedicated to services provided through a new Mental Health Care Special District.

Chair Maio explained then that the board members likely would not learn until the spring of 2022 about the recommendations of a task force appointed to review county mental health and substance abuse services and identify gaps and other measures for consideration. Thus, Maio said, it did not make sense to raise the millage rate for just a portion of the 2022 fiscal year.

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who spoke during the “Open to the Public” period during the Sept. 13 hearing, did urge the commissioners to reconsider imposing the new millage rate. He noted that he was appearing on behalf of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, which he serves as senior vice president.

Jon Thaxton addresses the board on Sept. 13. News Leader image

It was fitting, Thaxton said, that the hearing was being conducted during National Suicide Prevention Week. Since the commission’s discussions about establishing the Mental Health Care Special District began about a year ago, he continued, “Conditions have demonstrably worsened. … Sarasota’s mental health needs have moved from severe to crisis, with the most vulnerable among us the hardest hit.”

Referencing board members’ statements on Aug. 27, Thaxton added that the opposition to the new tax “is challenging to understand.” (Both Commissioners Ron Cutsinger and Ziegler said they had vowed during their campaigns not to raise taxes, if they were elected to the board.)

“Money invested in the district will, without doubt, save the county money and provide health and safety protection for its citizens,” Thaxton pointed out.

The new 40-bed treatment facility and The Bay

Additionally, during his Sept. 13 overview of the coming fiscal year, County Administrator Lewis said that the new budget includes performance-based pay increases for non-bargaining employees and contractual increases for bargaining staff.

One other major highlight, he added, will be the opening of a 40-bed secured treatment facility for criminal offenders who have substance abuse and mental health problems. That will be located on the campus of First Step of Sarasota.

Further, he said, the budget encompasses the first county payment into the fund for amenities for the 53-acre Bay Park in downtown Sarasota. In 2020, the County and City commissions approved a tax increment financing (TIF) mechanism for that project, which will feature arts and cultural facilities, along with environmental improvements designed to make Sarasota Bay a cleaner body of water.

This graphic offers details about the expenses of the 40-bed Secured Residential Treatment Facility. ‘FTE’ stands for full-time employee. It was presented to the commissioners in February 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As the property in the defined TIF district encompassing the park rises in value, both city staff and county staff will apply each year’s millage rate to determine the tax revenue for the affected parcels. Then, the resulting money will be set aside in a trust fund that a board appointed by the two commissions will oversee. Both commissions must approve any expenditure from that trust fund.

The base year for property values for the Bay Park is Jan. 1, 2019.

The County Commission’s final votes on the proposed millage rates and budget are scheduled for a hearing at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 29 in the Commission Chambers in downtown Sarasota.