Maintenance funding for county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program property to be increased as of the 2018 fiscal year

County Commission splits 3-2, with two board members concerned that an advisory council unanimously had urged it to wait a year on the decision so other options could be pursued

Deer Prairie Creek Preserve is one of the county’s natural lands in South County. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

The vice chair of their Environmentally Sensitive Lands Oversight Committee (ESLOC) implored them to wait another year before deciding whether to increase the percentage of money put toward maintenance of lands purchased through the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP).

Nonetheless, the Sarasota County commissioners voted 3-2 on June 21 to approve a staff recommendation to boost the percentage from 10% to 15%, starting in the 2018 fiscal year.

Commissioner Nancy Detert made the motion, which was seconded by Commissioner Charles Hines. Chair Paul Caragiulo joined them in the majority.

Commissioners Alan Maio and Michael Moran were in the minority.

During the Open to the Public comment period at the beginning of the commission’s June 20 budget workshop, ESLOC Vice Chair Jono Miller pointed out that Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, discussed raising the maintenance funding percentage during the board’s May 26 budget workshop. That was before the matter was brought to the ESLOC, he said. Then, when the ESLOC considered the issue, he continued, it voted unanimously against any change for FY18.

Previous county commissions promised the public that the maintenance rate would remain at 10%, Miller stressed. “I know promises get broken sometimes,” he continued. Still, he asked the board to direct staff to continue to work with the ESLOC members on a recommendation that the board could consider for the 2019 fiscal year.

Jono Miller. File photo

During a June 22 telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader, Miller pointed out that one of the ESLOC’s primary concerns is, “We may not be able to buy [certain pieces of] land later,” if acquisition funding is reduced, whereas the commission is not facing an immediate threat of running out of maintenance money.

He remains convinced that staff and the advisory board members can find other options for the commission to consider prior to its adoption of the 2019 fiscal year budget.

Miller also talked with the News Leader about the fact that the final county budget workshop will not be held until Aug. 21. That gives the ESLOC members time to make the public aware of the board’s action this week, he said. If community residents get involved in the issue, he continued, he feels the commission can be convinced to reverse its decision for the 2018 fiscal year.

In a fact sheet he provided to news media representatives on June 21, Miller also noted, “The public process has been inadequate,” adding that the budget workshop materials provided on the county’s website as of 5 p.m. on June 20 contained no slides regarding Brown’s ESLPP presentation.

Past, present and future

The ESLPP was approved in voter referendums held in 1999 and 2005. Sarasota County taxpayers contribute 0.25 mills per year to a fund set aside for the acquisition and management of natural lands in the community.

The 2005 referendum also modified the funding plan to allow 40% of the proceeds for acquisition to go to the county’s Neighborhood Parklands Program.

As she had on May 26, Brown explained on June 21 that 10% of the money that accumulates in the fund is used for maintenance and management of the lands purchased through the ESLPP. However, she said, as of 2009, the maintenance costs began to exceed the revenue set aside for that purpose. Therefore, she continued, staff has had to use reserve funds to make up the difference.

A slide she showed the board on May 26 pointed out that the 10% allocation for maintenance in the current fiscal year equals $1,197,125, “but projected expenditures are $2,183,294, resulting in [a] $986,169 gap to be covered by fund balance.”

The ESLPP will end in 2029, she reminded the board on June 21.

Carolyn Brown. File photo

In response to a question raised by the board in May, Brown continued, staff researched whether the promise that the maintenance level would not go above 10% was codified in a county ordinance. That language was not made official in any resolution or any other legal documentation related to the ESLPP, she said. “However, the 10% was indeed in a reference and promotional flyer” used prior to each referendum.

In mentioning an email she sent County Administrator Tom Harmer on June 19, Brown told the board that the county’s Parks Advisory and Recreation Council (PARC) approved staff’s recommendation to increase the maintenance figure from 10% to 15%.“The motion passed 9-1,” she wrote in the email.

However, she added, the ESLOC took the opposite view. Its motion read, “‘Recognizing the foresight and success of the originators and leveraging previous success, ESLOC recommends holding the ESLPP maintenance allocation at 10% and that the [commission] direct staff to collaborate with ESLOC to develop a consensus strategy to accommodate future management needs and to anticipate a transition to post-ESLPP funding. The motion passed unanimously.’”

The ESLOC met on June 1, she noted.

Based on budget modeling undertaken by the county’s Office of Financial Management, Brown continued on June 21, the ESLPP would have enough revenue to fully fund the maintenance expenses for the lands until the 2020 fiscal year. If the maintenance level were raised to 15%, she said, the resulting funds would almost cover expenses until the end of the program in 2029. In the 2027 fiscal year, she noted, a $85,163 gap is expected. The funds accumulated for acquisition by the same year would be $75,341,272.

Advice and consent

These are the budget projections for the ESLPP that Brown showed the commission on June 21. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Maio told Brown, “I guess the ESLOC committee [members’] concern” was the reduction in the amount of money that would be available to buy more land, if the maintenance percentage were increased.

Brown responded that that was the situation.

Moran pointed to his concern “about the … deferred maintenance issues … that are at our feet now that we need to discuss.” He added, “We need to pay our bills first and make sure that we have the money to maintain what we have currently, in my opinion.”

When he sought clarification from Brown that the board could raise the maintenance percentage above 10%, she replied, “Except a promise that we made on a flyer.”

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained, “I wouldn’t even consider that a promise. … Acquisition and maintenance are both lawful expenditures out of the same fund.”

Moran then pointed out that, based on Brown’s figures, the 15% figure would be sufficient as long as the county did not purchase any more property it had to maintain in the ESLPP.

“That’s correct,” she replied.

Commissioner Mike Moran. Rachel Hackney photo

“I think you should have ultimate discretion” in how much money to devote to maintenance, Moran told her.

“I would support your recommendation of 15%,” Detert said to Brown. “I think it’s reasonable.”

Hines also agreed, though he added, “My one hang-up here [is] we’ve not been able to convince our advisory board [members] — even one of them — that this is the right thing to do.”

Hines pointed out that there is “nothing more disheartening” to an advisory board member — who is a volunteer, he stressed — than to put time and expertise into considering issues, only to have the board’s recommendations rejected by the County Commission.

Hines also told his colleagues that county commissioners had pushed Brown and her staff into opening up more of the natural lands for visitors. While “that’s how you create future environmentalists,” he continued, that also translates into more maintenance and management expenses.

“Over a third of our county’s protected,” Hines noted. “How much is there to take off the tax rolls?”

“I’m a little troubled like Commissioner Hines is,” Maio said, referring to the ESLOC vote. If the board keeps the maintenance funding at the 10% level for the 2018 fiscal year, he asked Brown, “there will be no degradation in the maintenance?”

“That’s correct,” she replied.

“I think the greater good would be to keep the lands in great condition,” Detert responded, and then have staff work with the ESLOC to find “middle ground.”

“You have to start putting money away for when the cliff falls in 2029,” Moran said, referring to the end of the ESLPP.

“I would be willing to bet any of my fellow commissioners a wonderful steak dinner that the groups that pushed the referendums [in 1999 and 2005] will again repeat that vote for a quarter mill” beyond 2029, Maio said.

During his public comments on June 20, Miller also had noted the prospect the county eventually will receive money as a result of state voters’ approval of Amendment 1 in 2014. That measure designates 33% of net revenue from the documentary stamp tax imposed on property sales to the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund to support conservation.

Yet, Moran said on June 21, “That’s a big question mark at this time,” referring to whether the county ever will receive significant proceeds as a result of the passage of Amendment 1.

Commission Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo

“I have the utmost respect for the folks on the ESLOC,” Chair Caragiulo told his colleagues. Yet, “we serve a different purpose than they serve.”

Miller told the News Leader on June 22 that the 10 ESLOC members represent “probably 100 years of expertise” on the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands. The advisory board, he added, “should be given some deference.”

Miller himself is the retired director of the Environmental Studies Program at New College of Florida.

Still, Miller focused on the potential for changing at least one commissioner’s vote before the FY18 budget becomes final. A 3-2 vote, he said, is “better than looking at 4-1 or 5-0.”