County commissioners criticize City Commission proposal for modifying mechanism to help finance The Bay project on city property

Consternation aired over conflicting letters from City Commission after city board’s May 20 discussion of a potential tax-increment financing plan

A rendering shows an aerial view of The Bay amenities included in the master plan. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On May 20, three people cautioned the Sarasota City commissioners about proposing other uses of revenue from a tax increment-financing (TIF) district for The Bay.

Already, county leaders had indicated a disinclination that the proceeds from a proposed TIF district go toward any purpose other than creating the public park and cultural and arts amenities on 53 acres of city-owned waterfront property. That was the message City Manager Tom Barwin, Assistant City Manager John Lege and Bill Waddill, chief implementation officer of the Bay Park Conservancy, the nonprofit that will oversee construction of The Bay and manage events there, conveyed to the city board members.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Willie Shaw was insistent that city staff broach with county leaders the prospect of funding going toward improvements in Newtown, and Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch talked of her interest in funds being allocated toward other parks that could be connected to The Bay.

During the June 3 City Commission meeting, Shaw reprised his interest in incorporating the area of the Newtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) into the TIF district for The Bay.

The very next day — June 4 — during their regular meeting in Venice, the County Commission pushed back hard.

“I’ll try to stay calm through this, Charles Hines prefaced his remarks.

When Waddill appeared before the County Commission in March, Hines said, he made it clear to Waddill and other representatives of the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC): “Make this easy for us” to participate in another TIF with the City of Sarasota. Yet, the city commissioners had made it difficult, Hines continued, with their May 20 proposals.

The Downtown Sarasota CRA failed, Hines pointed out, because, in his view, the city commissioners chose to use some of the revenue from that 30-year partnership with the county for purposes other than ridding the downtown area of “blight and slum,” as laid out in CRA language in the Florida Statutes. City leaders allocated some of that Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund money for purposes that should have been covered by the city’s General Fund, Hines added.

(The General Fund, comprised mostly of property tax revenue, is the most constrained account for local governments, as a rule, because of all that it must cover. For the city, for example, the Police Department’s budget is paid for by the General Fund. For the county, the fund covers the annual budgets of most of the constitutional officers, such as the sheriff.)

“They don’t get it,” Hines said of the city commissioners.

“I am still working on trust due to our past bad experience with the City of Sarasota,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said.

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

She was referring to a dispute over a final payment to the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund that city leaders argued the county owed, while county leaders produced documentation — and meeting video — to dispute that. The boards settled the conflict earlier this year, with the County Commission agreeing to fund a number of City Commission priorities that added up to approximately the amount city staff said it should have received from the county for that final county Downtown CRA Trust Fund payment.

With TIF financing, a base year is set for the value of property in a specific area. As the total value of property within that area’s boundaries increases, the difference between the tax revenue for the base year and the increased revenue for each subsequent year is diverted to a trust fund.

On June 4, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho kicked off the discussion by reporting that after county staff received an initial letter from Mayor Liz Alpert — dated May 20 — about an initial proposal for the TIF district for The Bay, county staff then received a subsequent letter, dated May 31, with details about the City Commission’s actual vote on May 20.

Botelho added that he had watched the City Commission discussion to be certain about what had transpired at that dais.

The May 20 letter talked in terms of establishing a “Home Rule” TIF District to help pay for The Bay, which has been estimated to cost up to $150 million. That figure does not include the expense of a new performing arts venue to replace the Van Wezel, Waddill and other representatives of the BPC have explained.

Based on Shaw’s May 20 motion, the second letter sought County Commission consideration of the following, Alpert wrote:

  • Possible expansion of the north boundary of the proposed TIF district “to include the low income Newtown area.
  • “The possibility of a formula for each participant to allocate a portion of the TIF revenue to other priorities. This includes allocating funds for affordable housing, workforce development, parks and the Newtown area.
  • “Allocating funding to be spent on projects that have a nexus to The Bay Park Project.”

County staff wanted direction from the County Commission, Botelho said, about how to respond to the letters.

County Commissioners Nancy Detert and Christian Ziegler were blunt in calling for the City Commission to decide exactly what it wants.

“The ball’s back in the city’s court for clarification,” Detert said.

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

Nonetheless, she told her colleagues, “I do not want any expansion [of the TIF district into the Newtown CRA area].”

She added that she also opposed the use of any funds generated by the TIF for projects other than The Bay.

While he still had not made up his mind about whether he would support the TIF proposal, Ziegler said, he concurred with Hines’ earlier remark. “It would definitely need to be an easy ask.”

Botelho emphasized that the revenue going into a TIF trust fund would be money that otherwise would go into the county’s General Fund.

Hines further called for the city commissioners to watch the County Commission’s June 4 discussion of the issue after the video of the meeting became available — just as Botelho had watched the City Commission’s May 20 discussion.

With that direction, Botelho told the board members that staff would “draft something for [Hines’] signature, very short and simple,” and send it to the City Commission. Whenever he had an answer, Botelho added, he would let the commissioners know.

Consternation aplenty

This is the TIF district for The Bay proposed by city and county staff, prior to the May 20 City Commission discussion. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Sitting in for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Botelho acknowledged during the report section of the County Commission meeting that the TIF district issue was not on the published agenda for June 4. After he explained the situation with the two letters, he added that staff could schedule time for discussion of the issues in July, before the County Commission takes its annual summer recess.

Commissioner Alan Maio was the first board member to respond. Referencing the Downtown Sarasota CRA, Maio said he would not vote for another 30-year TIF agreement. He also disapproved of the City Commission’s call for expanding the district boundaries for The Bay TIF district.

Further, he said, if the City and County commissions ultimately agreed to the TIF, then he would want to ensure balanced representation from the county on the board that would decide how the TIF funds were spent.

Finally, Maio told his colleagues, “I want a programmatic — exactingprogrammatic approach” that would make it clear when a request could be made to the county’s Office of Financial Management for the county’s portion of the TIF revenue to be released “to the entity that’s going to be spending the money.”

In response to a question from Commissioner Michael Moran,

Botelho said he was not certain that, even over 20 years, enough revenue would be generated by the TIF district originally proposed for The Bay — without Newtown — to cover the expenses of the overall project.

These are projections of revenue from a TIF district for The Bay. The paragraph at the end was part of a message from Assistant City Manager John Lege to the City Commission earlier this year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

When Moran then asked whether other funding sources could be found for the amenities planned on the 53 bayfront acres, Botelho talked of the discussions of a working group of city and county staff members and representatives of the BPC in which he had participated on occasion; together, the members drew up the proposal for the original TIF district boundaries.

The BPC could apply for state grants and philanthropic gifts, for example, Botelho told Moran, to help pay for the project.

“Some would say this is the most valuable undeveloped piece of property in Florida,” Moran pointed out; “some would argue, the entire country.” Yet, he continued, he had concerns that The Bay — after completion — would not be economically self-sustaining.

“I don’t understand why we need a TIF to support The Bay,” Ziegler added. “My job’s to get the best deal on behalf of Sarasota County taxpayers and residents of all of Sarasota County …”

“I totally support this project,” Hines said of The Bay. “To me, it is the game-changer for the future of our region.” He believes, he continued, that people will visit Sarasota just to go to The Bay, as many visit New York City just to explore Central Park.

This graphic shows facets of the The Bay property as of 2018. Image courtesy of Sarasota County

“This is a regional project,” Hines pointed out. “People will boat from Tampa, from Fort Myers, from Naples, to come here,” he said, and they will visit other parts of the county.

He added that he believes TIF financing will be needed to make The Bay a reality.

Nonetheless, he said, his response to the city commissioners is “You made it incredibly difficult to get my support for this project in the way that you sent those letters.”