Funding mechanism for 53-acre Bay Park on City of Sarasota waterfront wins final approval from Sarasota city and county commissions

County Commissioners Moran and Ziegler vote ‘No’ on diversion of property tax revenue to pay for new amenities

A rendering shows an aerial view of the Bay Park. Image courtesy Bay Park Conservancy

The Sarasota City Commission was unanimous in its approval this week, but the Sarasota County Commission split 3-2 in voting on a 30-year-long agreement to dedicate close to $200 million in property tax revenue to building amenities planned at the 53-acre Bay Park on the city’s waterfront.

On Nov. 4, County Commissioner Christian Ziegler joined his colleague, Chair Mike Moran, in voting against the interlocal agreement and ordinance that establish a tax-increment financing (TIF) district and a governing board that will oversee how the resulting money is used for the Bay Park.

Moran previously has voiced concern that, given the expected county population growth over the next 30 years, the estimated $92 million county staff anticipates going toward the Bay Park will be needed instead for county services and improvements. (The estimated city portion of the funding is $97,288,084, according to revised figures produced by county staff.)

During the County Commission discussion this week, Ziegler referenced comments he made on Sept. 9. “The perception, if we approve a project like this,” he said that day, is that the county would be spending close to $100 million on a park “at a time when people are losing their jobs and businesses are struggling.”

He was talking about the novel coronavirus pandemic’s negative impacts on the economy.

On Nov. 4, Ziegler noted, “Throughout this process, I’ve kind of been on the fence with this project. … I haven’t gotten to the point where I’m ready to commit all that money yet.”

These are the estimated TIF payments for the city and county over the 30-year life of the proposed agreement, as of early September. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ziegler did take time to commend Bill Waddill, the chief implementation officer of the Bay Park Conservancy, which is the nonprofit organization overseeing the creation of the park and handling its management through an agreement with the City Commission.

“Bill Waddill has done such a fantastic job,” Ziegler said. “Hopefully, he can get this done.”

County Commissioner Charles Hines made the motion to adopt the applicable county ordinance and to approve the interlocal agreement with the City of Sarasota.

Commissioner Alan Maio seconded the motion.

Maio was Waddill’s long-time colleague at the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota before both men left their positions with the firm.

“We all know, to have great communities,” Hines said, “there needs to be a there, there. You can’t just have condo buildings. There needs to be things to do. This will take us to a new level for our whole community, our whole region. … This is a true legacy project.”

Hines was speaking during his last board meeting; he is stepping down after eight years on the commission because of term limits.

“This is a big, important project that we all want to visit and take our kids and grandkids to,” Maio added.

One of the most visible new features within the Phase 1 portion of the Bay Park is a floating wetland, the park website points out. This 10-foot by 5-foot island “is porous at the bottom, allowing the roots of the plants to grow down to the water and absorb nutrients. Once the plants mature, they are harvested for compost and new plants are replanted on the island,” the website adds. “To help minimize erosion along the bank, several kinds of water lilies and sedges were also planted along the shoreline of the pond. In the near future, the pond will be stocked with fish that naturally eat the algae.” Image courtesy of the Bay Park website

Prior to the County Commission vote, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho pointed out one modification in the ordinance, which Hines incorporated into his motion. That was to ensure the county ordinance would mirror the City Commission’s version, Botelho noted.

Among authorized uses of the TIF funds, Botelho said, would be “new bicycle/pedestrian and multimodal facilities within the [TIF] District.” During their Oct. 21 meeting, he reminded the commissioners, he discussed with them the desire of the City Commission to include “multimodal” in the ordinance. County staff mistakenly had left the wording out of the documents provided to the County Commission ahead of its meeting this week, Botelho added.

This graphic, shown to the County Commission on Nov. 4, includes the amended language. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When Commissioner Nancy Detert asked whether the City Commission offered any definition of what it meant by “multimodal,” Botelho told her that golf carts had been one example city staff had cited that could be covered by the revised wording.

“Doing golf carts kind of clogs the trail, don’t you think?” Detert responded.

Before golf cart use would be allowed, Botelho replied, “I’m sure that a study would have to be done,” to make certain the vehicles would not pose a danger to bicyclists, for example, within the Bay Park.

“OK,” Detert told him.

This is the planned TIF district for the Bay Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Detert reiterated her support for the park, though she referred to the county property tax revenue from the TIF district as “a big bite of the apple.”

“What we’re doing,” she continued, “is forgoing future collection of … property tax [revenue] that may or may not rise. We’re all taking a chance and betting that appreciation will happen on those properties [in the district], and there will be a surplus of revenue to fund this.”

January 2019 is the base year for the TIF district for the Bay Park, city and county staff members have explained. Each year, if the values of the parcels within the district increase, then both the City and County of Sarasota will transfer into a trust fund the property tax revenue they would have received on the basis of those increases.

This is a slide Assistant City Manager John Lee presented to the City Commission on Oct. 19. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If property values do not climb in a given year, staff members have pointed out, then no property tax revenue would go into the trust fund that year.

Concerns aired during City Commission meeting

During the Nov. 2 regular meeting of the City Commission, attorney Dan Lobeck, a city resident who heads up the Control Growth Now nonprofit, urged the board to amend one section of its agreement with the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC) before giving final approval to the TIF district ordinance.

That city agreement with the BPC, he pointed out, calls for the city to pay for a parking garage for the new, planned performing arts center, which will replace the Van Wezel.

The portion of that document to which Lobeck referred says, “In the event that the City Commission votes affirmatively to construct a parking garage for the convenience of visitors to The Bay Park at some future date, City shall fund the cost of constructing the garage.”

This image shows the concept for the new Sarasota performing arts center that was presented to the City Commission in December 2019. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“You should be able to use the TIF money for the garage,” Lobeck told the city commissioners. The agreement with the BPC and the interlocal agreement with the county for the TIF district, he added, “are totally inter-related.”

Moreover, Lobeck stressed, the county commissioners are aware of the commitment to the BPC regarding the garage. Why, then, would they agree “to use that scarce [TIF] money for the garage?” he asked. The expense of that project, he added, would end up falling “on the backs of us city taxpayers” without his proposed amendment to the BPC agreement.

“I would think you would want to keep your options open,” Lobeck told the city commissioners.

When Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked City Attorney Robert Fournier to address Lobeck’s comments, Fournier stressed, “His point is not really pertaining to this ordinance on second reading,” referring to the city version of the TIF district regulations.

Then Fournier pointed out, “The Conservancy felt that it would be difficult for them to get [significant] private donations for things like infrastructure [and] a parking garage …” Therefore, Fournier added, BPC representatives did not want language in their agreement with the city to specify that they would be responsible for such financing.

“It was always our intent that the city would be the responsible party for any garage,” Deputy City Manager Brown pointed out.

Fournier further indicated his disagreement with Lobeck’s assertion that the County Commission would “not be willing to appropriate a portion of the annual TIF funds to the garage. … I don’t know if that’s a valid assumption or not.”

“The garage certainly is a capital improvement that would be within the park,” Fournier continued. Thus, he added, “It would be eligible for TIF funding.”

This graphic shows existing and planned bicycle and pedestrian connections overlaid on the TIF district. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Moreover, Fournier noted, the TIF district governing board — which will include two city commissioners and two county commissioners — will conduct an annual budgeting process focused on the TIF revenue set aside in the trust fund.

Nonetheless, he said, if the city commissioners perceived the issue to be a problem, he could talk with the BPC leaders about amending their agreement with the city.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie pointed out that, since the TIF ordinance would include language regarding multimodal improvements — which, she said, would pertain to cars, as well — “It wouldn’t be a stretch” to consider a parking garage a multimodal structure.

After all, Freeland Eddie added, if people have nowhere to park their vehicles if they want to visit the Bay Park, the intent for broad public access to the facilities, which the City and County commissions have touted, would be defeated.

“The controlling thing is that [the garage] would be a capital improvement,” Fournier replied.

Commissioner Liz Alpert then asked whether the interlocal agreement with the county and the boards’ ordinances would be affected if the City Commission won approval of the BPC leaders at a later date to amend their agreement.

Fournier indicated that he foresaw no problems, emphasizing, “It doesn’t really tie into this [process with the county].”

These are the members of the board and the staff of the Bay Park Conservancy. Image from the website

Mayor Ahearn-Koch asked Fournier, “You’re confident that … TIF funds will still be able to be used for a parking garage?”

Fournier responded that he had talked with Assistant City Manager John Lege, who had been involved with the discussions with county staff as the TIF district documents were drafted. Lege concurred that a new parking garage would be considered a capital improvement, Fournier said.

“I agree wholeheartedly,” Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown added.

“I agree with Mr. Lobeck’s point [about the BPC agreement],” Ahearn-Koch said.

Two members of the public did voice opposition to the TIF district plans before the City Commission vote.

Jose Fernandez pointed out that the diversion of property tax revenue over 30 years “means that there’s less tax revenue for the General Fund,” which pays for many city services. If the commissioners approved the district, he added, that would necessitate “a degree of spending discipline” that he has not observed during his past two years of attending City Commission meetings.

“Unless you learn to live within your means,” he told the commissioners, “and reduce the size of our city’s government, the pressure to increase our tax rate will be one you will not be able to resist.”

Businessman Martin Hyde stressed that the TIF money would be used for what he called “one non-essential need.” Like Fernandez, Hyde predicted future city tax increases to pay for services.

Following those comments, Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie made the motion to approve the TIF district ordinance. Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it, and it passed unanimously.