County Commission agrees to a 2026 referendum for second extension of its Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program

Program expenses rising faster than revenue, with program set to end in 2029

Faced with more lands to which to provide public access, plus the rising cost of maintaining amenities — especially within parks — the Sarasota County Commission has directed administrative staff to begin preparations for a 2026 referendum to extend the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP).

That decision, with unanimous board support, came during a March 22 budget workshop discussion with Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR).

Indicating that he already had reviewed the slides that Rissler and her staff had prepared for the board members that day, Commissioner Michael Moran said at one point that he was “pulling the fire alarm” on the fact that the ESLPP will run out of funding before it expires in 2029.

“People think you buy property, and there’s no expense related to it,” Moran said. Yet, he continued, the county removes invasive species from the land it purchases, and it conducts controlled burns to prevent widespread wildfires, for examples. That takes money, Moran stressed.

In the 2023 fiscal year budget, he noted, staff anticipates spending $4,458,216 to maintain the land it has bought through the ESLPP. Yet, as shown in other slides, staff also expects to have only $3,032,114 available for that purpose. Thus, staff will have to use $1,426,102 from the ESLPP reserve fund to cover the difference.

As of Oct. 1, 2022 — the beginning of the current fiscal year — the estimated fund balance for the ESLPP was $2,450,168, a slide said.

“If you never bought another blade of grass,” Moran stressed, the county would be paying $3 million to $4 million a year to maintain what it had. “If you don’t have another voter referendum,” he added, “you are not going to have a red cent to maintain [the lands already purchased].”

Commissioner Mark Smith also pointed to the need for county staff to take a more aggressive approach to buying land, even though the overall maintenance expenses will rise. “We better buy it while it’s out there — before it’s gone.”

“I agree,” Chair Ron Cutsinger added.

The first voter referendum held on creating a publicly financed county Lands Acquisition Program won approval in 1999, Rissler pointed out during her presentation. Although the vote authorized that program for 20 years — through 2019 — county leaders agreed to conduct a second referendum in 2005 to ensure that the county would continue to be able to tax property owners 0.25 mills each year. That referendum also proved successful, Rissler noted.

However, instead of keeping the sole focus on environmentally sensitive lands for that second referendum, Rissler explained, the decision was made to use 40% of the revenue generated each year for the purchase of new parkland, through the county’s Neighborhood Parklands Program.

Altogether, she said, since the ESLPP was established in 1999, it has paid for the acquisition of 76 parcels of environmentally sensitive land totaling 18,452 acres.

Another 21,521 acres have been protected through conservation easements, which prevent development of the property, that slide showed.

Additionally, the ESLPP revenue has paid for 23 acquisition of parkland since 2005, totaling 116 acres.

“That might seem a little low, in terms of acres,” Rissler acknowledged of the parkland figure. “But, remember,” she continued, through the Neighborhood Parkland Program, “We purchase half acres, 1 acre — very small numbers, because those are … neighborhood parks that are in more urban environments.”

She further reminded the commissioners of the new amenities they celebrated a few months ago at the Osprey Junction Trailhead Park in Osprey. That site of that park, Rissler noted, “was one of our very early acquisitions in Neighborhood Parkland.”

Divvying up the tax revenue

Then Rissler talked about how staff has to divvy up the money it receives from the 0.25-mill tax. “First and foremost,” she pointed out, “we pay off debt service, which is a little over $7 million this fiscal year.” (Her slide put the exact figure at $7,176,405.)

Finally, the slide showed, the money left after covering debt service and maintenance goes into the Acquisition Fund.

The ESLPP Acquisition total projected for this fiscal year is $5,638,016 the slide said, with $3,758,677 anticipated in the Neighborhood Parkland Program “pot.”

Further, Rissler pointed out, from the 1999 fiscal year through the 2008 fiscal year, the management/maintenance funding represented 10% of the ESLPP proceeds. Then, in the 2009 fiscal year, expenditures began exceeding revenue, she said. As a result, staff began using fund balance to plug the gaps.

Finally, in 2017, the commissioners seated at that time agreed to increase the allocation for maintenance and management from 10% to 15% of the proceeds, Rissler noted. The funds the county was expected to receive through 2029 were believed to be sufficient for the needs, but that assumption did not factor in the expense of dealing with new acquisitions or any change in the level of service, she added.

Yet another slide showed the maintenance fund projections at the 15% mark would rise to $5,316,415 by the 2029 fiscal year; yet, the slide also said that only $4,626,182 would be available.

The only way to deal with that gap, she said, would be to increase the portion of the revenue used for maintenance from 15% to 25%.

In the early days of the ESLPP, Rissler reminded the board members, “Many of our lands were not open to the public or had very limited access.”

Early during her presentation, she pointed out that one of the commission’s top priorities this year is for staff to review the situation with an eye toward increasing that access.

Yet, expanding that access means higher expenses, Rissler said — and costs in general keep climbing. For example, she said, “We are now cleaning our restrooms seven days a week. We heard loud and clear from our community and from our visitors that we needed to increase that level of service.”

For another example, she continued, in 2017, “It cost less than $1,000 to remove [exotic vegetative species] from 1 acre.” That expense has risen to almost $5,000, she added.

Staff recommends that the commissioners approve a sliding scale of 20% to 25% for annual maintenance, Rissler said. Staff could prepare a resolution to that effect for them to vote on later this month or in May, Rissler added; it would go into effect in the 2024 fiscal year.

Referring to the slide showing figures through the 2029 fiscal year, Moran emphasized that, by the 2027 or 2028 fiscal year, “You won’t have a penny to pay for maintenance. Not a penny.”

Although 2029 seems far away, Moran continued, it is not.

Commissioner Nancy Detert — who still was on the board at the time — concurred with the proposal for a new referendum in 2026. In the meantime, she said, “The 25% [maintenance allocation] as a stop gap is good.”

Chair Cutsinger also voiced support for the sliding scale of 20% to 25% that Rissler had proposed. “The county has to be able to take care of whatever it buys,” he said. “We have to be very disciplined [about that], and we need to maintain [the lands and amenities] at a level at not just getting by but just high-quality maintenance …”

Another referendum?

Following her presentation, Cutsinger asked Rissler, “Have you given thought to when we will go forward with another referendum, because I think sooner rather than later [would be better]?”

“I think you’d almost have to have it in ’26,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis replied.

“Our community still doesn’t understand what an amazing program this has been,” Cutsinger pointed out. He stressed that 40,000 acres had been protected from development, thanks to the voter-approved tax.

Therefore, he added, he believes a 2026 referendum would be a good idea.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Moran responded, “and I think it’s just simply an educational process for everyone involved.

If the program does not continue, Moran said, “You have a serious budget problem in 2029.”

Commissioner Detert said the funding for acquisition of lands is “your selling point to the general public,” and those purchases are “necessary for the environment and even for the [protection of the aquifer], if nothing else”

“Unless there’s radical changes to the community,” Detert further noted, that 2026 referendum should pass. “[Members of the public] appreciate the beauty and the usability of the parks that we have,” Detert continued. Addressing Rissler, she added, “We get nothing but rave reviews about Parks and Rec.”

Cutsinger noted that organizations such as the nonprofit Friends of Sarasota County Parks and the Friends of the Legacy Trail likely would be happy to help advocate for passage of the referendum.

County Administrator Lewis did explain to the board members that, because of a state law that went into effect last year, staff will not be able to engage in any active education of the public about the referendum, in contrast to its efforts prior to the November 2022 General Election referendum on continuing the county’s penny sales tax — or “surtax” — program for another 15 years after it ends on Dec. 31, 2024.

“People have to choose to come to us,” he added, as county staff will be able to create webpages about the program, as they also did in advance of the Surtax IV vote, which won approval in November 2022.

Members of the public will have to take responsibility for alerting citizens to the plans for the referendum, Lewis pointed out.