On 4-1 vote, City Commission approves $256-million budget for new fiscal year

Commissioner Brody casts ‘No’ vote, protesting budget’s failure to include upcoming raises for employees, plus Bobby Jones Golf Club subsidy for next year

File photo

With Sarasota City Commissioner Hagen Brody voting “No,” the board members on Sept. 16 approved the proposed city budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

That budget will go into effect on Oct. 1.

They did approve the city millage rates on a unanimous vote on Sept. 16. The total millage rate for the city’s General Fund will remain at 3.2632, unchanged from the current fiscal year.

The General Fund is made up mostly of property tax revenue.

The total city budget for FY20 is approximately $256 million. The General Fund will make up about $75 million of that, based on documents included in the agenda package for the City Commission’s second and final reading of the millage rates and budget for FY20.

Because the city’s property value rose about 7.12% this year, the board members would have had to approve a total General Fund millage rate of 3.2254 to ensure that property owners did not pay more in taxes this year than they did last year.

Prior to the Sept. 16 vote on the budget, Brody protested the fact that city staff did not incorporate raises for employees — including Teamsters members — into the projections for spending in the 2020 fiscal year. He also talked of his frustration that the commission likely could end up paying another $900,000 subsidy to the Bobby Jones Golf Club in the next fiscal year, mirroring the amount it will provide the golf complex this year, to make up for lower revenues.

At one point, as city Finance Director Kelly Strickland was replying to Brody’s questions about the potential expenses of employees’ raises, Mayor Liz Alpert interjected, “Aren’t we not supposed to avoid discussing this?”

“It’s not really a good idea to get into specifics,” City Manager Tom Barwin replied. “Throwing around numbers … is inappropriate, to say the least, and potentially risks an unfair labor bargaining negotiation [charge].”

Brody began the discussion by announcing that he understood the Teamsters contract had been approved.

(The previous agreement between the city and the Citrus, Cannery, Food Processing and Allied Workers, Drivers, Warehouseman & Helpers Teamsters Local #173 went into effect from Oct. 1, 2016 and ends on Sept. 30 of this year.)

City Manager Tom Barwin listens to comments during the Feb. 19 City Commission meeting. News Leader photo

“First of all,” Barwin told Brody, “the Teamsters agreement has to be ratified [by the union members]. … It will have to come in front of [the commission after the ratification]. At that point, we will know what the actual figures are.”

(The current agreement says, “The Teamsters Local #173 recognizes that the City Manager is the collective bargaining representative for the City. The Teamsters Local #173 further recognizes its obligation to bargain solely and exclusively with the City Manager and/or his designee.”)

“I’ve gotten some conflicting information then,” Brody responded.

Deputy City Manger Marlon Brown then told Brody that the tentative Teamsters settlement called for salary increases of 3% the first year, 2.5% the second year and 1% the third year.

(The existing Teamsters agreement called for 3% across-the-board raises for the 2017, 2018 and 2019 fiscal years, but it carved out an exception for certain employees in the 2018 fiscal year on the basis of pay grade. The affected employees received lump-sum payments.)

In response to a question from Brody, Strickland said that $153,000 would have to come out of the General Fund for FY20 for the 3% increase for the Teamsters members.

Factoring in 3% increases for non-bargaining employees, Strickland told Brody on Sept. 16, would take another $424,000 from the General Fund.

Altogether, she said, the combined 3% raises for all staff in FY20 would add up to $1,429,000, but that would be “spread throughout the entire city,” including the “enterprise funds,” such as that of the Utilities Department. (“Enterprise funds” refers to the fact that some city departments, such as Utilities, generate income from fees, so they generally cover their own expenses out of that revenue.)

These are details in the budget the city commissioners approved on Sept. 16. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“The bigger point,” Brody said, is that the raises are not included in the budget the commission was scheduled to vote on that night, which would put it into effect beginning Oct. 1.

Then he noted that salary negotiations still are going on with officers of the Sarasota Police Department. “These are going to be expensive,” he added, possibly “seven figures” altogether.

“No, it won’t be that much,” Strickland told him, adding that her estimate would be about $500,000 out of the General Fund.

That was when Alpert interrupted Brody.

The Bobby Jones concerns

After City Manager Barwin offered his caution about the discussion, Brody turned to the issue of the city’s subsidy for the Bobby Jones Golf Club.

During a special meeting on Sept. 9, the commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a new plan for renovations of the Bobby Jones Golf Club. (Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie joined Brody in the minority.) The other board members agreed on 27 regulation holes — instead of the current 36 — plus a nine-hole course that could be adjusted periodically to give golfers new options for play. Freeland Eddie said it made more sense to her to keep the 9-hole Gillespie Executive Course instead of paying for the design of the new adjustable course.

Brody has urged his colleagues over the past year to eliminate more of the regulation holes, saying golf has become less popular across the country.

This is financial data for the Bobby Jones Golf Club that was included in an August report from the National Golf Foundation consultant the city hired. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The prized 18 holes designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross will stay in the same location, consultant Richard Mandell, whose eponymous firm is in Pinehurst, N.C., told the board members on Sept. 9.

A practice facility and 47 acres of park space are part of the proposal.

As a result of the decision, the golf club will stay open through the coming tourist season. The tentative timeline calls for Bobby Jones Golf Club to close in April and then reopen in October 2021.

An August report by Richard Singer, director of consulting for the National Golf Foundation — whom the city hired to research options for Bobby Jones — pointed out, that a “9-hole adjustable ‘short course’ … has proven successful in public golf, and can be a key support for both direct (fees generated from patrons) and indirect (helps to sell facility and train new customers) revenue.”

Referring to the adaptability of the short course, Mandell told the commissioners on Sept. 9, “There’s no extra cost” for such a facility.

A 2016 aerial map shows Bobby Jones Golf Club in the city of Sarasota. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On Sept. 16, Brody stressed that the board’s Sept. 9 decision pushed off the start of the redevelopment of the facilities at the club. “[It] seems to be … a sure thing,” he said, that if the city subsidy for the club this year was $900,000, it would be the same amount in FY20.

Strickland responded that, in passing the budget, the commission authorized a transfer of $2.4 million to the city’s new Parks and Recreation District. (In July, the board members chose not to establish a millage rate for that district.)

She acknowledged that a subsidy for Bobby Jones in the 2020 fiscal year “will eat into [the $2.4 million].”

How will the commission pay for the subsidy next year, Brody asked.

The money would come out of the city’s fund balance, Strickland said.

Brody pointed out that she was referring to what essentially is a savings account that the commission can use for “disasters or emergencies … and I think that is wrong.”

The anticipated raises and the new subsidy should have been factored into the budget ahead of time, he stressed, “so we’re not dipping into our savings.”

Barwin pointed out that the figures to which Brody was referring were all “guesstimates.”

Commissioner Willie Shaw finally made the motion to approve the budget, and Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch seconded it.