Importance of renewing Sarasota County’s penny sales tax program the focus of presentation to Siesta Chamber members

County leaders working toward November 2022 referendum

Sarasota County signs denote projects funded by the penny sales tax — or, Surtax — program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The November 2022 General Election ballot will feature the next Florida gubernatorial race, a U.S. Senate race, two County Commission races and numerous other issues — including, potentially, county Charter amendments.

“It’s going to be a long ballot,” former County Commissioner Christine Robinson recently told leaders and other members of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce.

One other key item on that ballot, she pointed out, will be the county’s Surtax IV referendum. “This will be the first time that this will be [part of] a regular election cycle,” Robinson said during the Siesta Chamber’s mid-year meeting for members, held on June 16.

The future of county infrastructure is dependent on that referendum, Robinson stressed.

Whenever someone purchases an item in the county, she explained, the individual pays not only the 6% state sales tax but also the 1% “surtax,” with the funds going to projects needed throughout the county.

“What is really important about this,” Robinson pointed out, is that visitors help pay for facilities they use, including the roads.

This chart shows how the current Surtax program’s revenue had been spent through the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As Steve Botelho, deputy Sarasota County administrator and the county’s chief financial management officer, has explained to the County Commission, 50% of the Surtax revenue is dedicated to transportation initiatives.

“That’s a really important point for you all to understand,” Robinson told the Chamber group on June 16.

In 1989, county webpages note, voters originally approved the Surtax program; they have continued to do so in succeeding years.

Both the Surtax 1 and Surtax II programs were in effect for 10 years. Then, in November 2007, voters approved the 15-year Surtax III initiative. That will expire at the end of December 2024.

The reason the County Commission will conduct a referendum in November 2022, Botelho has said, is that if it should fail on the first attempt, the county will have one more chance — during the November 2024 General Election — to gain voter approval.

Some local governments also are talking about the potential of tax increases, Robinson told the Siesta Chamber members. That is another reason, she indicated, that county leaders started much earlier to put a focus on Surtax IV. “There is a lotgoing on that we have to be concerned about.”

Yet, she stressed, “This is a fair tax for everybody.”

“Your Chamber is at the forefront of this,” she pointed out, as the board members are among the first groups to support the 2022 referendum. They really understand the importance of the funding, Robinson added.

This graphic, shown to the County Commission in May 2019, explains facets of the Surtax program. ‘CIP’ refers to the county’s Capital Improvement Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In 1995, Robinson continued, a referendum on the Surtax II program did fail. County leaders tried again in November 1997 and were successful, she added.

Her understanding, she continued, was that in 1995, county leaders “really didn’t put a lot of effort into [the referendum],” including making it clear to voters how the money would be spent.

The School Board automatically gets 25% of the Surtax revenue, Deputy County Administrator Botelho has pointed out to the County Commission. The rest of the funds are distributed to the county and the municipalities based on population, he reminded the commissioners during their March 24 budget workshop.

Each local government body has to conduct an annual review of how the surtax money is spent, Robinson also noted during the Siesta Chamber meeting. For the county, the Citizens Tax Oversight Committee handles that responsibility.

Recommendations welcome

Robinson also talked of community outreach efforts during which groups such as the Siesta Chamber will have an opportunity to offer suggestions about the projects that they would like to see constructed through the next surtax program.

This is the Surtax IV program timeline, as presented to the County Commission on March 24. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the County Commission’s March budget workshop, Botelho said that that initiative is expected to get underway in September. Then, in November and December, the Surtax Task Force, whose members the County Commission appointed in April, will hold public workshops. He added that the consolidation and ranking of projects is anticipated to be completed in February 2022, with the County Commission to have an opportunity in March 2022 to review the final list, well in advance of the referendum.

Because voting by mail has become much more popular in recent years, Robinson explained to the Siesta Chamber group, “Everything has to start much earlier [with the Surtax IV campaign].”

Robinson noted that a portal will be created on the county website, as well, so members of the public can submit suggestions for projects. “I encourage you to do so,” she said.

The proposals will be distributed to the appropriate local government bodies for their consideration, Robinson pointed out.

How the Surtax III money has been spent

Surtax revenue paid for improvements at Siesta Public Beach Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county webpages with details about the Surtax program show that, through the 2020 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2020, the county had dedicated $285.5 million of its Surtax III funds to transportation. The figure represented 59% of the total Surtax III money collected at that point.

Another $63 million had been allocated to parks (13% of the total), with libraries getting $35.5 million.

Of the 116 projects on which the money was to be spent, 25 involved transportation through the end of FY 2020. The largest number pertained to parks: 46.

This graphic shows some of the ways the City of Sarasota has used its share of the Surtax funds. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Through the same period, the City of Sarasota had programmed $111.8 million of Surtax III funding, with the majority — $36.4 million — dedicated to “Community” initiatives. Another $35.7 million had been allocated to transportation and sidewalks.

Among the projects on Siesta Key that received Surtax III funds, Robinson told the Siesta Chamber group, were the Siesta Public Beach Park improvements, which included the construction of more parking spaces; improved and expanded concessions; and an updated playground and family picnic facilities. The total expense for enhancements of the facilities there, according to a document provided to the County Commission during its June 23 budget workshop, was $22.5 million between 2008 and 2018.

Turtle Beach Park benefitted from $1.1 million in Surtax revenue, which went to facilities and parking improvements.

Additionally, Robinson noted, the county constructed the new Gulf Gate Library, which is the library that Siesta residents use.  The expense of that initiative was $7.5 million, the county website says.