Four residents complain about higher taxes during board’s public hearings
Many years, the Sarasota County commissioners conduct their budget hearings with no public comments. This year, two residents showed up at the first one, on Sept. 11, and two more appeared during the final hearing, on Sept. 26 — all of them focused on the higher taxes they will pay.
During his opening remarks during the Sept. 11 hearing, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out, “The county is not increasing its millage rate. It’s actually a slight reduction of 0.0082 [mills].”
That decrease is linked to the debt service on bonds that the county issued — following a 2018 voter referendum — to extend The Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota and from Venice to North Port.
On Sept. 26, Lewis said, “The millage has actually gone down significantly over the county’s past 24 years.”
Yet, as Commissioner Mark Smith noted during a budget discussion earlier this year, with the county’s property value having risen 14.3%, and the board members not having asked staff to “roll back” the proposed millage rate for the 2024 fiscal year to bring in the same amount of property tax revenue expected for the 2023 fiscal year, property owners countywide will have to contend with higher bills.
The aggregate county millage rate for the 2024 fiscal year is 3.8429 mills. A county document included in the Sept. 26 agenda packet pointed out that that is an 11.82% increase “of the [2023 fiscal year] rolled-back rate of 3.4368.”
One mill represents $1,000 of the value of a parcel.
That same document noted that the 2024 fiscal year General Operating millage for the county is 3.2653 mills, “which is a 12.27 percent increase of the rolled-back rate of 2.9085 mill.”
During the Sept. 26 hearing, Rebecca Goff, who said she lives in the Southside community in Sarasota, told the board members, “My taxes since 2012 have gone up 64%, and I’m getting very concerned when I look at your budget.”
She pointed out that staff anticipates 60% of the revenue in the 2024 fiscal year — which began Oct. 1 — to come from property tax revenue.
Out of consideration about an economic downturn, she added, “I think you need to slow down.” She mentioned what she perceived as spending on “fancy technology” and suggested that the commissioners ensure that staff move furniture from the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota to the new one just underway on Fruitville Road, instead of purchasing all new furnishings. (See the related article in this issue.)
A pie chart in the 2024 fiscal year budget showed the total property tax revenue expected is $258,164,929, which would make up 60% of all General Fund revenue. The General Fund, county staff has explained, is the most flexible “pot” of money in the county’s budget, as uses of the revenue have far fewer constraints than funds from other “pots.”
The property tax revenue expected for the 2023 fiscal year was $225,971,489. Thus, the 2024 figure represents a 14.2% increase.
The commissioners this summer did ask County Administrator Lewis to try to secure funding reductions from the county’s constitutional officers — such as the sheriff and the clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller — in an effort to eliminate projected gaps related to General Fund spending in future fiscal years. Lewis, who focused on recurring expenses, was able to achieve approximately $3.3 million in such savings, with the majority of that — $2,052,669 — coming from county departments.
The total proposed budget for the 2024 fiscal year, as Lewis noted in documents included in the Sept. 26 agenda packet, had been revised from $2,016,063,967 in a preliminary document he released on Aug. 23. to $2,014,910,533.
For the 2023 fiscal year, the total was approximately $1,455,064,140. Thus, the new budget is 38.5% higher.
The second speaker during the Sept. 26 hearing was Sarasota businessman Martin Hyde, who used to be a frequent critic of City of Sarasota financial decisions. He pointed out that he has been a city resident for about 25 years.
Hyde stressed that the 2024 budget is the county’s first to exceed $2 billion.
“County’s been here 102 years,” he pointed out. “It took us, what, till 2017, to get to a billion dollars?” Yet, in six years, he continued, the county had exceeded the $2-billion mark. “You doubled the budget in six years.”
Hyde also criticized Lewis for telling the Sept. 11 speakers that the board had not raised the millage rate.
Then he noted that, six years ago, Commissioner Michael Moran “said he was troubled” that the county continued to live beyond its means.
Hyde further noted that the commissioners “bill [themselves] as fiscal conservatives.” He asked, “Do you know what a fiscal conservative is?” What it is not, he added, is “allowing unelected bureaucrats to dictate the budgets.”
Moreover, he criticized the board members for letting the annual property value increases determine how much money they can spend each fiscal year.
“You all need to stop lying about taxes,” Hyde continued. “Just because somebody’s property has increased in value doesn’t mean that they’ve got more money.”
Other budget details
Among other details in the 2024 fiscal year budget documents, funding for the county’s constitutional officers and appointed officials —the District 12 medical examiner is among the latter — is up 23.2%, compared to the total for the 2023 fiscal year. The FY 2024 figure is $292,522,607.
The Sheriff’s Office’s budget, as noted on the same chart, is $182,248,096, which is higher by 19.1%, compared to the FY 2023 total.
During a late-June presentation to the commissioners, Sheriff Kurt Hoffman made the case for the addition of 24 new full-time agency members, 20 of whom would be law enforcement officers. Originally, he pointed out, he and his staff had factored in 47 new full-time employees, but they worked to revise the budget to try to keep it as low as possible.
“This budget reflects the growth of this county that is kind of smacking us right in the face, for sure,” Hoffman said.
He uses the county’s annual Citizen Opinion Survey as a guide to planning his budget each year, he pointed out. (See the related article in this issue, which notes that concerns about crime rose slightly this year.)
For county departments under control of the commissioners, the 2024 fiscal year budget is up 36.3%.
Among their Sept. 26 votes, the commissioners also unanimously approved the county’s Capital Improvements Program for FY 2024 through FY 2028, which totals $2,400,972,625. The funding just for the 2024 fiscal year was put at $335,019,390.
As staff has noted, projects included beyond the first year of each five-year CIP are those generally expected to take place. Commissioners routinely adjust project plans for the later years, as priorities change.
During the final hearing, the board members also approved the millage rates for special districts in the county. For example, the Siesta Key Village Public Improvement District millage rose 7.89%, from 2.9315 in the 2023 fiscal year to 3.1628 in the new fiscal year.
That district encompasses the area that the commissioners paid to beautify during a project that was completed in 2009. The goal was to try to achieve a more resort-like look for the Village, including the installation of paver sidewalks. The owners of property in the district pay taxes each year based on the millage rate.
For another example, the Gulf Gate Lighting District saw its millage climb 24.54%, from 0.1569 mills in the 2023 fiscal year to 0.1954 mills in the new fiscal year.