On another split vote, City Commission approves tentative citywide millage rate increase

Commissioners Brody and Freeland Eddie again raise objections

The Sarasota city commissioners vote on a motion on June 4. File photo

With Commissioners Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie reprising comments they made during earlier sessions on the City of Sarasota’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year, the board members split 3-2 this week in approving the tentative millage rates for FY19.

Commissioner Willie Shaw made the motion during the regular meeting on July 16 to set the not-to-exceed millage rates, which include a planned increase for the city’s operating millage from 3.1728 to 3.2632 mills. The other rates are for the citywide debt service (0.2518 mills), the St. Armands Business Improvement District operations (2 mills), the Golden Gate Point Streetscape Special District operations (0.5758 mills), the Golden Gate Point Streetscape Special District Debt Service (1.0289 mills) and the Downtown Improvement District operations (2 mills).

If the proposed citywide operating millage rate of 3.2632 goes into effect, a homeowner with a taxable value of $200,000 would pay an additional $18.08 a year, or $1.51 per month, city staff has noted.

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch seconded Shaw’s motion on July 16. Mayor Liz Alpert, who was participating by telephone in the evening session of the meeting, also voted for the proposed millage rates.

Kelly Strickland, the city’s director of financial administration, pointed out that the commissioners could lower any of the rates during their two public hearings in September on the proposed FY19 budget. However, she said, “We cannot raise [them].”

No one had signed up to address the matter that night, City Auditor and Clerk Pamela Nadalini informed the board.

After Shaw made his motion, Freeland Eddie asked whether the commission needed to vote on all the millage rates in one motion. Nadalini replied, “It’s really up to the … the commission.”

“In the past,” Strickland added, “it’s all been done together.” In September, during final approval of the budget, Strickland added, separate votes on the millage rates would be required.

A chart shows proposed new city employees for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Before Ahearn-Koch called for the vote, Brody said, “I just want to speak against raising the [citywide] millage … I think we’re going down an unsustainable road, and I keep seeing the figure that we’re trying to climb up to our 2006-2007 [spending] levels.”

The city had a budget of about $189 million in the 2006-07 fiscal year, he pointed out, while the proposed FY19 budget is about $229 million.

“These good economic times will not continue,” Brody said, “and we’re going to be in real trouble when [property values cease climbing again].”

A chart shows trends in city millage rates and property values over the past decade. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Freeland Eddie reiterated her opposition to the citywide millage rate increase, as well. “I think many of the issues that were recommended did not have to be included in our budget cycle [for FY19]. … I think we took on too much too soon.”

She was referring to new staff members and equipment requested by departments, including 14 full- and 14 part-time personnel to handle operations and management of five parks Sarasota County is turning over to the city when the next fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. The expected net cost to the city of that change is $914,546, Strickland and City Manager Tom Barwin have pointed out. That situation has been the primary reason behind the proposed millage rate increase, they have explained.

Arlington Park and Aquatic Facility, Centennial Park and Boat Ramp, Ken Thompson Park, the Lawn Bowling Facility and Payne Park Tennis Center will become the city’s responsibility as of Oct. 1.

A graphic shows details of the proposed City of Sarasota budget for the 2019 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Sarasota Police Department is among other departments requesting more personnel in the next fiscal year. Chief Bernadette DiPino appeared before the commission on June 26 to explain her need for two new Bike Patrol officers, a new detective to handle white-collar crime, a property and evidence specialist and a captain to oversee Internal Affairs and handle other issues, such as accreditation and inspections.

The Police Department positions and the Parks and Recreation Department personnel will be paid for out of the city’s General Fund, which largely comprises the property tax revenue the city receives.

On July 16, Freeland Eddie also voiced concern about the potential for staff to seek another millage rate hike for FY20, as an additional homestead tax exemption — a measure the Legislature placed on the Nov. 6 ballot — is expected to pass. Its effects would not be felt before the 2020 fiscal year.

A city news release issued on July 17 pointed out that, even if the proposed citywide millage rate increase goes into effect, the city still will have one of the lowest municipal rates in the state. Only 25% of the towns and cities in Florida will have lower millage rates, the release noted.

The two public hearings on the city’s proposed budget will be held on Tuesday, Sept. 4, and Monday, Sept. 17, at City Hall, beginning at 6 p.m.

“Anyone interested in speaking about the proposed budget is invited to do so then,” the city news release said. The proposed budget and budget workshops may be viewed on the city’s website: sarasotafl.gov.