Offering no direction to staff during special budget meeting, City Commission will have to decide on millage rates during July 15 regular session

Staff options included separate millage for new Parks and Recreation District on TRIM notices

This is the proposed City of Sarasota budget for the 2020 fiscal year, compared to the FY19 budget. The ‘Debt Service’ line is highlighted for part of the July 8 budget discussion. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert adjourned the July 9 special meeting of the City Commission without a vote directing staff how to handle the proposed General Fund millage rate for the 2020 fiscal year in the Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices that will be mailed out on Aug. 16.

The sticking point was whether to approve designated funding for a new Parks and Recreation District the board approved late last year.

After Alpert banged the gavel, City Financial Administration Director Kelly Strickland hurried back to the dais on July 9 to ask what the commissioners wanted to do, referencing three options she had provided them earlier that afternoon.

“Can we assume that there was no direction?” City Attorney Robert Fournier asked.

“Assume that there was no direction,” Alpert replied.

“We’re coming back Monday,” Commissioner Willie Shaw added.

The board will hold its next regular meeting on Monday, July 15. At that time, it is scheduled to set the not-to-exceed millage rate for the 2020 fiscal year, as required by Florida law.

The board members had spent most of July 8 and the early part of July 9 reviewing the proposed facets of the 2020 fiscal year budget. Overall, the budget next year has been planned to rise 7.83% — from $230,769,220 for this fiscal year to $248,843,858. Staff did not propose a millage rate increase for FY20.

The city’s property value is up 7.1%, as reported by the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office in late June. (See the related article in this issue.)

The value of 1 mill to the city’s budget is $10,822,758, Strickland explained to the board on July 8.

As Strickland went through the millage vote options on July 9, she pointed out that if the board chose No. 3, that would appear on TRIM notices as a 20% increase in the General Fund account, which largely is made up of property tax revenue.

Option 1 called for dividing the millage into 2.5963 for the General Fund and 0.6669 for the Parks and Recreation District. Strickland cautioned the board, “Because this is a new district and a new millage, a unanimous vote is required of the governing body.”

Before the commissioners established the district late last year, City Manager Tom Barwin explained that by setting a separate millage rate for the district’s operations, the board would be more transparent to taxpayers in how it was covering expenses for parks and recreation.

This is among Parks and Recreation Department slides staff included in the July 8 budget presentation to the City Commission. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

This is the first fiscal year for which the city has been responsible for five parks Sarasota County used to manage, including Arlington Park and Aquatic Center. In fact, Strickland reminded the City Commission on July 8 that the city’s FY20 budget includes a second $881,000 subsidy from the county to assist in that transition. The 2021 fiscal year, she pointed out, will be the final year of three that the county will provide that subsidy.

City staff also has proposed moving $2.4 million from the General Fund to the Parks and Recreation District in FY20 to help with the startup expenses of that district, Strickland noted.

Option 2, as Strickland explained it, would set the millage rate at 3.2632 for the General Fund, raising that fund’s total to more than $75 million. That figure would include $7,217,697 for the Parks and Recreation District, which is the amount the proposed 0.6669 mills would bring in to that account from property tax revenue.

If the board kept the millage at 3.2632 for the General Fund, Strickland said, staff would bring to the board a budget amendment to transfer the $7.2 million out of the General Fund to pay for operations of the Parks and Recreation District.

Finally, Strickland said, Option 3 would set the millage rate at 3.2632 for the General Fund, with the intention of lowering it to 2.5963 if the Parks and Recreation District millage of 0.669 is not levied during the City Commission’s final public hearing on the FY20 budget, which will be conducted on Sept. 16.

If the commissioners chose not to levy millage for the Parks and Recreation District for the next fiscal year, Strickland said, they could do so the following year. Nonetheless, she added, a unanimous vote still would be necessary to create the district and set the new millage.

These are the three millage options staff presented to the board on July 9. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

If the board went with Option 3, Alpert pointed out, people getting their TRIM notices would not understand the 20% increase in the General Fund.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked Strickland, “What, in your experience, is the downside of putting out the TRIM notice higher than the intent?”

“You don’t want that one,” Commissioner Shaw said with a chuckle.

“Kelly’ll be taking the phone calls,” Assistant City Manager John Lege, who served as city finance director before Strickland, told the board members, also with a laugh.

“We would try to explain [the situation] through the media in advance, if you choose that direction,” City Manager Tom Barwin explained.

Then Interim City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs told the commissioners that one member of the public had signed up to provide general remarks.

After that person completed his comments, Alpert adjourned the meeting.

The only motion the board took during the portion of the session allocated to the budget was to extend the ending time again. They had voted earlier, during a discussion about the Bobby Jones Golf Course, to push the end of the meeting to 5:30 p.m. from 5 p.m., as 5 p.m. was included in the public advertisement of the special meeting.