County administrator to recommend on Aug. 29 that County Commission agree to resetting of the base year for the Newtown Community Redevelopment Area

Tom Harmer also provides formal notification that he will discuss a proposed $2.6-million Downtown Sarasota CRA settlement with his board

County Administrator Tom Harmer addresses the Siesta Key Association in March. File photo

In a letter the City of Sarasota received on Aug. 7, Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer wrote City Manager Tom Barwin that he would make the County Commission aware of the city’s request for $2.6 million to settle a dispute over a final county payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

Nonetheless, Harmer wrote, “This request is contrary to the County’s position and offer to resolve [the issue] …” Harmer added that he would let Barwin know if the county commissioners changed their minds.

“I understand [the $2.6 million] is based on the City’s position that an additional payment is due plus penalties and interest,” for a total of $5.3 million,” Harmer wrote in his Aug. 3 letter.

The dispute over what the city maintains should be a 30th payment from the county into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund began about 16 months ago. Both sides have produced documents that staff members say make their cases.

In a July 27 email to Harmer, Barwin wrote, “With interest the city believes the past due 30th year CRA payment is now up to $5.5 million. The Commission advised me to advise you that they would prefer to settle this matter and move on. Although neither side may be elated with the $2.6 settlement number articulated by the Sarasota City Commission, that is usually the sign of a fair compromise.”

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion on July 17 for the city board to ask that the city and county split the difference. Her colleagues gave unanimous support to that motion.

Harmer did indicate in his letter — as he noted he had in July 5 correspondence with Barwin — that he would recommend to the County Commission that it support the city’s effort to reset the base year for the Newtown CRA. Still, he added, “As you are aware, the County Attorney has previously advised our Board that this action by the City requires formal County approval.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier has disputed that, based on his reading of the documents that established the Newtown CRA in 2008.

A graphic shows the boundaries of the Newtown CRA. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Harmer noted that he would recommend approval of the County Commission’s support of Newtown CRA action when that board meets on Aug. 29. The session will be its first regular one following its five-week summer break.

Because of the onset of the recession, city staff members have explained, the Newtown CRA has not provided any tax-increment financing for redevelopment initiatives. Generally, a CRA generates money as the property in its defined area gains value: The difference between the value in the base year and the value each subsequent year is used to determine how much tax revenue goes into the trust fund.

Even though property values in the city rose again this year, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland told the City Commission during a July 10 meeting, the property in the Newtown CRA still has not recovered the value it had when it was established. That base year figure was $176,044,120, she said. The 2017 total is $142,523,501, based on data provided by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office. The figure does reflect an increase of 11.23% from the 2016 value, Strickland noted.

A chart shows details about property values for the Newtown CRA. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In an Aug. 7 email, Barwin forwarded a copy of Harmer’s letter to the city commissioners, telling them he was keeping them up-to-date on the matter.

In his July 27 email to Harmer — on which Barwin copied Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown and Fournier — Barwin noted that he was following up on his call to Harmer earlier in the week. Barwin wrote that he expected the City Commission to have its first reading on Aug. 21 on resetting the Newtown CRA base year.

Referring to the city board’s CRA discussion on July 17, Barwin added in that email, “The Commission felt with the complexity and substantial needs for capital improvement and economic development funding within the [CRAs], that the City Commission should be trusted to choose and prioritize [its] funding needs with the final CRA partial payment. The back and forth and debate over this and that project has provided no end in sight to these conversations, and now with your transitioning it would seem it is an appropriate time to tie up loose ends. I would be happy however to put together a list of the projects the City will consider funding with the final partial payment.”

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Harmer announced during the County Commission’s July 12 meeting — the last before the county board began its summer recess — that he expected the following week to be named the new administrator for the Town of Longboat Key. After the town board voted on July 17 to approve Harmer’s contract, Harmer formally submitted his resignation to the County Commission, announcing Dec. 8 as his last day in his current position.

In the July 27 email, Barwin also was referencing earlier discussions of the County Commission in which members had suggested the City Commission submit one or more projects to the county for funding through the county’s Community Reinvestment Program (CRP). Similar to a CRA in that it is designed to spur economic development, the CRP was revived in late summer 2015 to encourage public/private partnerships on infrastructure that could expand the tax base of a municipality and, ultimately, the county.

Nonetheless, city commissioners have proposed county funding of specific projects — including a job-training center on the Marian Anderson Place brownfield site — in an effort to resolve the CRA issue.