County Commission approves Fiscal Year 2021 budget and millage rates on first reading

Final public hearing set for Sept. 23 in Sarasota

This pie chart breaks down expenditures planned from the General Fund in the tentative county budget for the 2021 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1. Image courtesy Sarasota County

One down. One to go.

On the evening of Sept. 14, with only a scattering of staff members apparent in Chambers, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously adopted a variety of resolutions related to its 2021 fiscal year budget.

The session was the first of the two, annual public hearings required before the new budget goes into effect on Oct. 1.

The second public hearing will be conducted on Sept. 23.

Both sessions were scheduled at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, where the board has been meeting since the novel coronavirus pandemic necessitated social distancing protocols. County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has explained that technological capabilities are better at the Ringling Boulevard facility than at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, which make it easier for members of the public to participate remotely in public hearings. Additionally, the downtown Sarasota Commission Chambers has more room for the board members to spread out at the dais, as dictated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an effort to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

With no members of the public signed up to speak during the Sept. 14 hearing, it took only about 24 minutes for the board members to move through a script provided to them in advance. That script dictated the actions needed during the session.

The tentative county budget for the 2021 fiscal year totals $1,333,705,094. “Excluding transfers and reserves equaling $239,976,238,” a budget document explains, “the FY2021 Tentative Financial Plan is $1,093,728,856.”

The county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP), through which the commissioners set priorities for new construction, accounts for about $411 million of the overall budget for the next fiscal year.

The total funding for the county’s constitutional officers — including the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office — and other agencies, such as the 12th District Medical Examiner’s Office and the commission itself — is down 2.2% for FY 2021, compared to the FY 2020 budget, the document notes.

This chart shows part of the changes from current fiscal year spending to proposed spending in the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Out of that group, the biggest drop — 31.7% — has been anticipated for the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) revenue, which is the funding produced by the county’s 5% tax on all accommodations rented for six months or less time. Prior to mid-March, before the pandemic effectively halted tourism, staff had projected another new TDT record for this fiscal year — $28,828,835. Given the decline in the number of visitors to the county over the past six months, and indications that tourism could take more than a year to return to its pre-COVID-19 level in Florida, the TDT revenue estimate for the 2021 fiscal year is $19,685,999.

The largest year-over-year increase in that portion of the budget is for the Public Defender’s Office — 30.9%. During the commission’s July 1 budget workshop, 12th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Larry Eger pointed out that he had included in his FY 2021 budget the funds for technological advances he had requested in the past and had been denied.

“This isn’t a good year for catching up on unmet needs,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Eger that day. “It’s a good year for trying to swim where you’re at.”

“I understand,” Eger replied. Yet, “We’re finding it more and more difficult because of unmet needs,” he added. That is why, he said, “We find ourselves in this dilemma.”

Further, extra funding has been set aside for the Early Case Resolution Program, which was designed for people who have been jailed on low-level felony charges. The goal is to keep the jail population at or below the maximum level allowed by the space in the three detention centers in downtown Sarasota.

The overall FY 2021 budget for departments under County Commission control is up 4%, according to the Sept. 14 backup agenda material.

No ‘rolled-back’ millage rates 

The county’s total millage rate will be 3.8039, reflecting voter-approved funding for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park and a connector to North Port. (See the related article in this issue.)

A person with a house valued at $200,000 — who does not have a homestead exemption — would have a county property tax bill just under $761, based on that millage rate.

As noted in the resolution the board adopted on first reading this week, the aggregate millage represents a 1.44% uptick in comparison to the rolled-back rate of 3.7499. The rolled-back figure represents the millage rate that would keep tax payments at the same level as they were for the current fiscal year. Because the county’s property value rose approximately 5.2% this year, payments would be higher even without the millage allocated for The Legacy Trail.

That Legacy Trail millage is 0.0688 mills.

These are part of the expenditures planned for the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, county citizens voted first in March 1999 and then in November 2005 to impose an annual ad valorem tax on themselves to provide funds for the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program. For FY 2021, the tax is 0.1253 mills. The resulting funding enables staff to purchase native habitats that will be preserved from development.

The general operating millage is 3.2149, which is a 2.94% increase compared to the rolled-back rate of 3.1232 mills.

Overall, the value of county property this year is $65.5 billion. That is the highest level in history, based on charts provided to the commissioners. In the 2008 fiscal year — before the Great Recession’s impact on the economy first became evident — the value was $62.7 billion.

Budget changes year-over-year

This pie chart shows details about expenditures for the Capital Improvement Program for the next fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Capital Improvement Program spending is projected to decline by 3.4% in the new fiscal year, to $324,114,086.

Altogether, the FY 2021 budget has been projected to increase 1%, compared to the FY 2020 total.

The General Fund revenue in the 2021 fiscal year has been put at $322,893,016. As the budget overview describes it, “The General Fund contains the operating expenditures for services that are County-wide in nature.” It accounts for 24.2% of the overall FY 2021 spending plan, the overview adds.

A pie chart shows that 55.6% of the General Fund revenue is expected to come from property tax payments, which have been estimated to total $179,395,491. Another 12.5% is projected from charges for county services.

The largest portion of expenditures from the General Fund each year goes to the Sheriff’s Office. For FY 2021, the tentative amount is $123,445,882.

During the Sept. 14 public hearing, the commissioners also unanimously approved the annual series of non-ad valorem assessments, as well as fire and rescue, and stormwater assessments.

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