‘Make us an offer,’ county commissioners tell City Commission, and then county board will agree to joint meeting on funding for The Bay

Commissioners again express frustration at lack of City Commission consensus on tax-increment financing plan

This is the revised concept for Phase 1 of The Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

After the Sarasota city commissioners have decided exactly how they want to proceed on creating a tax-increment financing (TIF) plan to help fund The Bay project on the city’s waterfront, then the County Commission will agree to a joint meeting to discuss the proposal.

That was the consensus of the county commissioners on Aug. 27.

“We shouldn’t be the one driving the bus,” County Commissioner Alan Maio said. “This is their project; this is their property.” The city commissioners need to come to the county board members with a firm decision about the TIF, he added. “Then we’ll discuss it. But don’t lay it on us to make a proposal to them.”

The discussion ensued after County Commission Chair Charles Hines brought up a July 17 letter Mayor Liz Alpert sent Hines and his colleagues regarding the potential TIF.

“I don’t know if we can have a joint meeting until they know exactly where they stand,” Hines said. “I just don’t want to have a joint meeting for them to negotiate with each other …”

“I agree with what you just said,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded. “If they firm up their position, I think that’s when we step in and have a joint meeting.”

During their regular meeting on July 15, the city commissioners again failed to reach a consensus about how revenue from a TIF for The Bay should be allocated.

The TIF proposal calls for setting a base year for the value of The Bay parcels and surrounding property. Then, as the value of that land theoretically grows each succeeding year, the total amount of tax revenue resulting from that uptick would be set aside for purposes outlined in an agreement between the city and county boards.

During the City Commission’s regular meeting on May 20, Commissioner Willie Shaw maintained that Newtown should benefit from the TIF funds, because he expects many of its residents will end up working at amenities on the city’s 53 acres of bayfront property. He talked of the need for job training and economic development in Newtown, as well as affordable housing so long-established families could continue to live in that community.

This is the TIF district for The Bay proposed by city and county staff prior to the May 20 City Commission meeting. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On July 15, Shaw stuck to that position.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch talked in May about the potential of TIF funds to be used for connecting other city parks to The Bay. However, she did not reprise those points in July. Instead, she proposed the joint meeting with the county commissioners, to determine their views on how the TIF agreement should be crafted.

The leaders of the initiative to create arts and cultural and recreational opportunities on the city property have pointed out for some time that they hope a TIF district will help pay for the project.

A.G. Lafley, founding CEO of the Bay Park Conservancy, has reported that it could take 15 to 20 years to build all the proposed amenities, so it is not possible to determine how much everything will cost. A new performing arts structure, to replace the Van Wezel, is part of the plan.

The City Commission on April 15 incorporated this exhibit, included in the agenda packet for the meeting, into an agreement with the Bay Park Conservancy. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Lafley and Bill Waddill, the implementation director for the Conservancy, have indicated to the City Commission that the overall cost of The Bay could be several hundred million dollars.

Waddill earlier expressed the desire to have the TIF agreement in place before the end of this year. The Conservancy has been working to refine plans for Phase 1 of The Bay, but private donations and community nonprofit funds are expected to cover much of the expense of that work, Waddill and Lafley have told the City Commission.

Before the City Commission voted unanimously on Sept. 6, 2018, to approve the concept of The Bay plans, Waddill and Lafley provided documents to the board indicating the hope that a TIF would generate a minimum of $5 million for Phase 1 and perhaps as much as $20 million. Phase 1 will be constructed on the southernmost part of the property. Those figures were reduced in materials provided to the City Commission in April, with the highest “aspirational” figure for the TIF revenue at $3 million.

Backup agenda material for the special Sept. 6, 2018 City Commission meeting — when the board unanimously approved the concept of The Bay — said that financial planning consultant HR&A, which had worked with leaders of the project, had estimated the capital costs of Phase 1 at that time to be $15 million to $20 million.

Back at the County Commission dais

These are projections of revenue from a TIF district for The Bay that were provided to the City Commission in May. Assistant City Manager John Lege had added the note at the bottom, addressing the commissioners. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the Aug. 27 County Commission discussion, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said his position in discussions with City Manager Tom Barwin has been, “‘Go work out more of the specific details [about the TIF plan],’” because Lewis was not sure the county commissioners were in total agreement about the facets of the proposal.

The length of the TIF period, for example, has not been settled among the county commissioners. Commissioner Maio has indicated potential support for a 30-year term, as long as the County Commission has sufficient representation on the governing board for the tax-financing district. Other county board members — such as Detert — have seemed more reluctant to enter into a three-decade term, given a years-long dispute over the last TIF district involving the City and County commissions. Her comments have alluded to the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).

On Aug. 27, Lewis noted that county board members have mentioned a TIF term from 10 years on up to 30 years.

A graphic explains facets of the redesign of the pier in Phase 1. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Lewis also said he had made it clear to city staff that he was “notcomfortable” with the idea of senior city and county personnel working out the details of the TIF agreement. Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho has been attending meetings with senior city staff only to participate in analysis of potential revenue projections and design of prospective TIF district maps, Lewis added. “Our position has been their board needs to lock it down first.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler called the situation “very frustrating.”

“The project looks … amazing on paper,” Ziegler continued. Yet, “It seems like [the Bay Park Conservancy staff and nonprofit board members are] changing their plans on construction.”

(After unveiling the latest proposed design for Phase 1 in July, the Conservancy has been conducting more community meetings to gain public comments. The reconfiguration of a public pier over the bay drew criticism from residents of the neighboring Condo by the Bay when Lafley and Waddill appeared before the City Commission on July 15. Some of those condominium residents reiterated their opposition to that facet of the design in comments to the City Commission last week.)

Ziegler added, “I want to see a package deal for us to make a decision, and [the city commissioners are] still trying to debate some of those things. … It’s very easy to go from excited about the project to frustrated to a little bit annoyed, if you will.”

Hines summed up the position of his board to the City Commission: “Make us an offer, and then we can have a joint meeting.”