County program taking the place of new CRAs had its genesis in the Feb. 20 budget workshop this year

Commissioner Christine Robinson won board consensus to research a revival of the Community Reinvestment Program, and a staff presentation followed in May

Commissioner Christine Robinson. News Leader file photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. News Leader file photo

Sarasota County Commission discussions about reviving a 2006 program to support community redevelopment projects began in public on Feb. 20 of this year, almost exactly seven months before the board formally adopted a resolution signaling the end of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).

The process culminated in a 5-0 vote on Sept. 21 to approve a revised county ordinance governing the Community Reinvestment Program (CRP). A day later, the commissioners approved $500,000 as seed money for that program as part of its 2016 fiscal year budget.

On Feb. 20, during the County Commission’s first formal budget workshop of the year, Commissioner Christine Robinson broached the subject of the 2006 ordinance crafted to create the CRP, pointing out that projects had not been funded since 2007 because of the Great Recession.

The Downtown Sarasota CRA is set to expire next year, she pointed out, and requests had come in from other parts of the county regarding funding assistance for capital projects. Therefore, she suggested the county board consider reviving the CRP with new funding and a revised ordinance, “because [the current ordinance] is very loose.”

“I think this is an opportunity for us to look at capital projects without the administrative overhead that is involved with special districts,” Robinson continued. The Community Reinvestment Program also would “allow for competition within the county to have the best projects.”

“I think that that’s a real good idea,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who formerly served on the Sarasota City Commission, responded. Although he had not read the 2006 county ordinance, he added, he felt Robinson’s proposal had merit, especially because the county would not be funding “all those administrative costs” associated with CRAs.

Vice Chair Al Maio thanked Robinson for her suggestion. “Anyone who’s out in our county hears a constant drumbeat about CRA extensions, new CRAs, but a companion to that is to talk about very specific projects …”

Commissioner Charles Hines added, “I totally agree with this conversation. … My objection with the current status of things is the overhead and the costs that [go toward] managing things even when there’s no pending project [in a CRA]. The city and county lines shouldn’t matter … if the project benefits all.”

Chair Carolyn Mason told County Administrator Tom Harmer that, given the consensus among the board members, staff should research reviving the CRP, including the availability of new seed money for it.

Delving into the details

Jeff Maultsby. News Leader file photo
Jeff Maultsby. News Leader file photo

During the County Commission’s May 15 budget workshop, Jeff Maultsby, director of business and economic development for the county, provided background on the 2006 program, noting the original intent was for it to serve as a mechanism through which the county could participate in widespread redevelopment activities. The CRP’s initial funding was $3,978,552, Maultsby said, with another $600,000 funneled into the program from the county’s General Fund in 2007.

The ordinance, as written, enabled any municipality in the county and the county itself to apply for money for certain purposes:

  • Acquisition of real property.
  • Expenses related to redevelopment planning, surveys and financial analysis of projects.
  • Design, preparation and construction of public improvements.
  • Partial or full repayment of any debt obligation.

Maultsby pointed out that every participant in the CRP had to have some “skin in the game,” referring to financial commitment.

The County Commission funded three projects before the CRP went dormant, he continued. The City of Venice received $1.25 million to help it acquire 1.32 acres to restore the natural shoreline of Hatchett Creek and create neighborhood recreational activities. Then $2.7 million went to Phase 1 of the Siesta Key Beautification Project, which included the construction of brick sidewalks and medallions at key intersections in Siesta Village as well as the relocation of overhead utility lines and new landscaping. Finally, the City of North Port received $500,000 to assist in the redevelopment of the U.S. 41 corridor “to improve the appearance and function of the gateway [to the city],” according to a slide Maultsby showed the board.

All of those projects were awarded funds in 2007, he added.

The CRP had about $168,000 left when the commission ceased funding projects, he continued. That money eventually was returned to the county’s General Fund.

To revive the program, he said, staff had identified $500,000 in the county’s Housing and Community Development Fund as seed money. However, no future money stream had been found, he noted.

“I like the idea,” Hines said of renewing the Community Reinvestment Program. “We voted not to continue one CRA,” he pointed out, though representatives of other Sarasota County cities have talked about trying to work with the board to create new ones.

Referring to the CRP, he continued, “I think this is a much more efficient way to do [redevelopment]. You don’t have the overhead, the extra costs, the ability to abuse this. It’s project-oriented, and we probably would like to see [the funds] distributed evenly throughout the county …”

“I agree,” Robinson said, adding that she hoped communities would undertake initiatives to leverage the funding the county could provide.

“I think [the County Commission] is looking to no big grand [new] CRAs or the extension of any,” Maio said. Referring to Robinson’s comment, he noted, however, that if a community were to set up a tax increment financing mechanism (TIF), such as those used with CRAs, the resulting revenue stream would build on the money awarded to that community for a project through the CRP.

County Administrator Tom Harmer. Photo by Rachel Hackney
County Administrator Tom Harmer. Photo by Rachel Hackney

County Administrator Harmer also pointed out that, instead of creating a CRA, a municipality could establish a downtown improvement district to help bring in revenue to combine with CRP funds.

Mason concurred with Hines and Robinson, adding that during the last discussion the county and city commissioners had about the Downtown Sarasota CRA, the county board members asked their city counterparts to bring back a project that the county commissioners would consider funding. “Well, here’s the program to do that.”

Hines did ask Harmer for clarification that the Newtown CRA is separate from the Downtown Sarasota CRA and that the county does not participate in the former. That is correct, Harmer replied.

Then Caragiulo pointed out that Newtown CRA does not bring in any revenue because its current property values have not risen above those of the base year to which the revenue stream is pegged.

Harmer also told the board the City of Venice has communicated a request to the county for assistance in building a new parking garage. He added that county staff had responded that a revived CRP would be one way for Venice to win county funding support.

“This is all fine,” Caragiulo told his colleagues. “But one of the things that’s really missing” is the fact that a CRA welcomes private investment. If the board members chose to have a conversation about how to achieve “real results,” he added, “I think that you outta lasso in people that build things in some way, shape or form.”

He continued, “If there’s a way to just integrate folks who are remarkably creative without perhaps [having] a direct interest in [a project] … I think that’s an opportunity we should take advantage of.”

The new ordinance

On Sept. 21, Mason asked Maultsby about the prospects of the future funding stream if the board approved the revised CRP ordinance.

“We will continue to work with the [county’s] Office of Financial Management to seek out funding options,” Maultsby replied. Referencing the $500,000 in seed money, he added, “We have not identified anything beyond that point.”

After learning no person had signed up to speak during the public hearing on the proposed changes in the ordinance, Mason closed the hearing.

Robinson then made the motion to approve the revisions, and Hines seconded it.

A section of the new Community Reinvestment Program ordinance shows added language (underlined) and strikeouts of the original language. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A section of the new Community Reinvestment Program ordinance shows added language (underlined) and strikeouts of the original language. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We’ve seen the problems when you create a structure where you’ve got high overhead,” Robinson said, referring to the Downtown Sarasota CRA, “and I think this eliminates much of that.”

She added, “I’m really looking forward to seeing the projects that come forward as a result of this.”

When Mason asked how areas of the county would be notified of the program’s revival, Maultsby responded, “All of the communities are very much aware of it,” thanks to outreach by county staff and the holding of discussions about it with representatives of the various municipalities.

Robinson’s motion passed unanimously.