County Commission approves revised 2024 fiscal year budget with $3.3-million reduction in recurring expenses

Goal is to build back up Economic Uncertainty Reserve Fund

This chart shows General Fund projections through the 2028 fiscal year, with the July 1 county property value and $3.3 million in cuts to recurring expenses factored into it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Following budget discussions that took place over two days in late June, the Sarasota County commissioners agreed that they should put a focus on building back up the county’s Economic Uncertainty Reserve Fund. Commissioner Michael Moran emphasized that their predecessors’ decision to take such action during the boom time before the Great Recession enabled subsequent boards to continue to provide a high level of services to the public while many county commissions around the state struggled to make ends meet after the downturn arrived.

Looking at the potential that the county’s General Fund — which is made up largely of property tax revenue — could end up with a shortfall of $1.2 million in the 2024 fiscal year — and that the shortfall potentially could climb to slightly more than $7 million in the 2027 fiscal year — Moran ended up making a motion to ameliorate the situation. He called for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to work with the county’s constitutional officers — such as the sheriff and the clerk of the Circuit Court — on their proportionate share of cuts to lower recurring expenses by $4.5 million, starting in the 2024 fiscal year.

Lewis already had shown the board members a slide making it clear that no shortfalls would be anticipated through the 2028 fiscal year if $3.3 million in ongoing expenses were identified. That assumption was based on the June 1 preliminary property values, which showed the value of all county property had risen 13.3%, compared to the certified value in 2022.

With a higher uptick in the county’s property value — 14.27% — in the July 1 report from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office — the General Fund budget model showed a projected deficit of $755,659 in the 2025 fiscal year and a $2,608,666 shortfall in the 2027 fiscal year, as presented during an Aug. 8 budget workshop for the commissioners. The Economic Uncertainty Reserve would go up by $2 million in the 2025 fiscal year — to a total of $7 million. Then, by the 2028 fiscal year, the fund would be expected to hold $60 million, instead of $54 million, the slide showed.

This is the General Fund budget model with just the July 1 property value incorporated into it. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The budget model — produced with software that the county has used for years — points out that staff runs the figures on the assumptions that expenditures will climb 4.7% a year, but expenses will end up being 6% lower on an annual basis, and revenues will come in 3% higher each fiscal year.

With an overall decrease of $4.5 million in ongoing expenses through the 2028 fiscal year, county staff predicted that the Economic Uncertainty Reserve would hold $70 million by FY 2028, with another $13 million available that could be added to it. Reducing recurring expenditures by $3.3 million a year would mean only another $5 million “Additional Available” for that reserve fund in the 2028 fiscal year, another slide noted. However, the fund would be anticipated to have $11 million in the 2024 fiscal year and $16 million in FY 2025, instead of $5 million and $7 million in the same fiscal years with no cuts in recurring costs.

“I think our model … is as good as it is out there,” Lewis said during the Aug. 8 workshop, based on his years of service with other local governments as well as Sarasota County. (He was named acting administrator in December 2017 and formally was hired in January 2018.)

With Lewis having obtained some concessions from the constitutional officers, and with county departments having adjusted their proposed budgets accordingly, the commissioners agreed that the approximately $3.3 million in savings those changes added up to would be sufficient.

The largest amount — $2,052,669 — came from departments under control of the County Commission. Moreover, a chart showed, that figure was $130,674 higher than the target amount, based on the direction in Moran’s June 21 motion.

This chart shows the budget reductions provided by the county’s constitutional officers as well as county departments under County Commission control. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The next highest figure — $670,000 — was proposed by the Sheriff’s Office. That amount was $1,271,566 shy of the target reduction.

A chart that Lewis showed the commissioners noted that Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller; Property Appraiser Bill Furst; Court Administration; Dr. Russell Vega, the District 12 medical examiner; and State Attorney Ed Brodsky all submitted revised budget totals that included their proportionate shares of the $4.5 million.

Public Defender Larry Eger and his staff actually exceeded their target amount by $286, the chart said. The total sought from Eger and his staff was $21,014. A July 3 email from Eger’s budget director, Maryanne E. Conlan, said that the decision had been made to focus the requested cut on the office’s information technology expenditures.

In making his opening remarks on Aug. 8, Lewis said he already had included the $3,296,780 in savings in his proposed 2024 fiscal year budget. However, he added, he was looking for direction from the commissioners about how to proceed.

“I think it was very important … that we started to build up that [Economic Uncertainty] reserve during these times that have been so good four our county,” Commission Neil Rainford said. Noting the anticipated, extra $10 million for the fund by the 2028 fiscal year, Rainford added, “I think that’s the direction we need to head …”

With the July 1 property values “plugged into” the budget model, a chart showed that Office of Financial Management staff anticipated $60 million in the fund by the 2028 fiscal year, even without any reductions in recurring expenses.
Rainford also emphasized, “We’re certainly not raising taxes.”

He told Lewis, “I think the staff has done a great job” with the reductions.

Commissioner Mark Smith said, “I’d like to thank everybody for finding savings where we can.”

Smith ended up making the motion to approve the approximately $3.3 million in lower expenditures over the coming fiscal years, and Moran seconded it.

“Thank you to all concerned,” Moran said, noting that if the county at some point ends up with more money in the Economic Uncertainty Reserve than commissioners believe is necessary, “We give it back to the taxpayers.”

Chair Ron Cutsinger pointed out that no Sarasota County Commission has raised the millage rate in the past 24 years, and no increase is planned this year. “That speaks volumes to fiscal discipline and management,” he added.

In fact, Cutsinger continued, he believes Sarasota County still has the second lowest millage rate of the state’s 67 counties. (One mill represents $1,000 of the value of a piece of property.)

Further, Cutsinger pointed to the fact that the county has maintained its AAA rating for general obligation bonds. The board members cannot emphasize that enough, he said, as that rating allows the county to obtain the lowest possible debt service rates when it issues bonds.

He also noted that he had spoken with all of the constitutional officers. “They went line by line [in their budgets],” he added. “It was a little painful for a couple of them.”

When Cutsinger called for the vote, Smith’s motion passed 5-0.

Lewis reminded the board members that their formal hearings on the 2024 fiscal year budget are scheduled for Sept. 11 and Sept. 26 at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

By the numbers

Although none of the commissioners mentioned specific comments from the constitutional officers in regard to the proposed reductions in their FY 2024 budgets, all of the responses were included in the agenda packet for the Aug. 8 meeting.

The following is a sampling of them:

Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman

Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman appears before the County Commission during a June 2022 budget workshop. News Leader image

As mentioned during my [June 20] presentation, the preliminary budget submitted is the minimum amount necessary to perform the duties of the sheriff’s office efficiently and effectively. For this exercise, the budget was reviewed again in its entirety. A contract for school crossing guards in the amount of $413,640 was identified as a function that statutorily does not fall within the responsibility of the  sheriff’s office.”

Hoffman added that after he spoke with County Administrator Lewis, they agreed that “this responsibility will be transferred to the county.

“An additional consideration for this budget exercise is to delay the start of the 24 new FTE’s [full-time employees] requested in the budget,” Hoffman wrote. “These positions are needed to meet the growing needs of our community …” However, he continued, by postponing the addition of those positions until January 2024, “approximately $670,000 would be saved and our previously submitted budget would be reduced by a total of S1,083,640.”

Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner

“As commissioners and staff are aware, the administration of elections is a critical function of local government. Sufficient staff, systems and supplies are necessary to ensure that the community continues to have confidence in the voting process. Likewise, steady growth within the county and ever-changing state laws have added increased cost and complexity to the work we do.

“Next year is an important presidential election year, and as such, three countywide elections are already on the schedule for 2024. Given the growth and consistent engagement of voters in our county, we can anticipate high voter participation once again.”

“Following the June budget workshop, I directed my staff to review the election office’s proposed 2024 budget once again for reduction opportunities. By shifting the purchase of certain election supplies and delaying the hiring of permanent staff, my office will be able to reduce its proposed budget by $71,608.”

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates

“We have shared with County staff that in FY23, my office will earn an additional $1.6 million in interest and fees above what was earned in FY22. I also expect to earn a similar amount in FY24. This additional revenue more than covers the increase to my budget.

“During my budget presentation [in June], I shared how proud I am that my office has the lowest cost per capita in all of Florida. In fact, the State average is more than 50% higher and the counties to the north and south are over 100% higher. Our efficiency is accomplished by a flat organization with a limited number of managers in addition to empowered staff members who continually innovate.

“As you know, Florida Statutes leave me no discretion on the services performed by my office for the residents of Sarasota County. My office budget is 92% staffing costs, therefore, any reduction to staffing will have a direct impact on how long customers must wait to be served. I am sure we can all agree that increasing wait times is not acceptable. Another 5% of my budget is for the costs associated with tax bills and vehicle registration renewals. The remaining 3% of my budget is primarily for essential IT maintenance and office security. However, I am willing to delay filling any open positions which will reduce my budget by $81,570.”

Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller

Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller. Image from the Clerk’s Office website

“During the Board of County Commissioners (BCC) Budget Workshop held on June 21, 2023, for the operations of my office as County Comptroller, Treasurer, Auditor, and Ex-Officio Clerk to the Board, I submitted a needs-based budget totaling $11,392,939 for fiscal year 2024 to the BCC through county administration. This budget was presented to you after significant review by me and in consideration to perform all the statutory duties that I am obligated to fulfill under the laws of this State. At the same workshop, the presentation made by County Administration allocated internal service charges to my budget request for services the County is required to provide, totaling $1,497,310, which equates to a 22 percent increase over the prior fiscal year. This amount, along with my request totaling $12,890,249, was represented to the BCC by County Administration as the total budget for my office.

“After the workshop meeting, the County Administrator informed me that the calculation of internal service charges allocated to my office contained an error. Accordingly, I have been asked to reduce my fiscal year 2024 budget request by $72,901. Given that the size of the requested budget reduction has changed, I will accept the Board’s request and discontinue pursuing the needs-based budget I presented to you at the June Budget Workshop. Accordingly, I formally amend my fiscal year 2024 budget request by $72,901 to $11,320,038, excluding the BCC internal services charges allocated by the County of $1,432,552 for a total of $12,752,590.”

Property Appraiser Bill Furst

“My budget does not include any egregious or superfluous expenditures; it is the bare minimum funding required in this economic climate to maintain the current level of service we provide. 80% of our budget is personnel services, and my minimal increase is necessary to retain and recruit high-quality candidates. My operating increase for fiscal year 2024 was predominantly due to increased mailing and printing costs related to the sending of over 300,000 truth-in-millage (TRIM) notices as required by law.

“Where I could possibly reduce costs is in legal services. However, I do not believe that would be a fiscally sound decision, because reducing the budget for legal services would compromise the pillars of fairness and equity among all taxpayers. Our enforcement of Florida homestead law has resulted in not only fairness among all taxpayers, but a windfall to you. Since we began actively auditing exemptions, we have identified 1,869 violations totaling $20,105,752 in taxes, penalties, and interest. Over $18 million dollars has been received by the Tax Collector. The related legal expense for these investigations was $1.56 [million]. I have the legal expense in my budget, but the county (and every other taxing authority) receives the proceeds. None of the recovered monies go to my office. Our legal cost is representative of our investment in fairness and equity, and our application of the statutes has been continually affirmed by courts at the Circuit, Appellate, or Supreme Court levels.

“Nonetheless, at your direction, I would be willing to reduce my budget for legal services by $104,175 with the caveat that I cannot control or predict any future legal action taken against my office.

“During the budget workshop presentation, I noticed numerous references in the county’s budget to ‘Property Appraiser Fees.’ Since I do not charge any fees, I directed my staff to inquire as to the expenditure being attributed to my office. The explanation I received was that it is a line item in your budget in case my office needs a budget amendment and the amount allocated is $2,557,398. In the last 10 years, we only required additional funding once, and that was for less than $20,000 for COVID-related costs in 2020. It would seem to me that this would be an excellent place for you to reduce the county budget.”