Task force provides report on proposals it received during public meetings and through online portal
On Tuesday, Feb. 8, the Sarasota County Commission is scheduled to conduct a review of all of the project proposals submitted to the county’s Surtax IV Advisory Task Force, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho announced early this month.
The goal, he noted, is for the commissioners to settle on the list for funding if voters in November approve a fourth iteration of the sales tax program. In 1989, the voters initially approved the addition of an extra penny of sales tax, county webpages point out. That tax is applied to the first $5,000 of any purchase that is subject to the state’s sales tax, the webpages explain.
A county calendar shows the discussion will begin at 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, during the afternoon session of the regular board meeting, which will start at 1 p.m. That calendar also says the discussion is expected to conclude at 3 p.m. On Jan. 11, Botelho indicated that it would last several hours.
During the Nov. 8 General Election, the ballot will include a county referendum calling for continuation of the Surtax program for another 15 years, from 2025 through 2039. The current program — Surtax III — will end on Dec. 31, 2024.
County administrative staff recommended the 2022 ballot measure, in the event the referendum fails. The county would have one more opportunity to keep the program in place by trying a follow-up referendum in November 2024, Botelho has said.
One-quarter of the revenue produced each year is allocated to the Sarasota County School district. “The remaining 75% is distributed among the county and the municipalities based on population,” the webpages add. The proceeds may be used only for investments “in public projects such as parks, roads, sidewalks, libraries and schools; they may not be used to pay for general operating expenses,” the webpages point out.
After the commissioners appointed the members of the Surtax IV Advisory Task Force — on April 21, 2021 — the group conducted six meetings, its chair, Dan Bailey, noted in remarks to the commissioners on Jan. 11. (Among the other members of the group are former City and County Commissioner Paul Caragiulo and former County Administrator Jim Ley.)
As a staff memo in the backup agenda materials noted, “The role of the Task Force was to solicit project ideas from members of the public through neighborhood workshops and an online portal; to categorize and rank the project ideas proposed by members of the public; and to present its findings to the Board of County Commissioners.”
“The turnout was somewhat light” at the public meetings, Bailey noted. That likely was a result of the fact that people knew no final decisions would be made on projects during those sessions, he added. “You are ‘the decider,’” he told the board members.
Bailey did note, “We had a broad public relations campaign” before the workshops began. County staff offered information on the county website and through social media and news releases. Additionally, publications ran guest editorials about the upcoming referendum and how the Surtax Program funds are used.
In spite of the low attendance at the meetings, Baily continued, “We had a tremendous response from the online portal” that county staff established for the public to provide suggestions. Altogether, Bailey said, 295 entries came from 269 persons, and those generated a total of 234 projects.
The task force’s report points out that the portal was open from Sept. 1, 2021 through Nov. 16, 2021.
The task force had asked members of the public to note their top three investment priorities, Bailey explained.
As a result, Bailey said, the task force members ranked the projects according to seven criteria, which were outlined in a report provided to the commissioners. “It was a bit difficult,” he added, “because I would hear someone submit an idea and I would want to champion it.”
Noting that 50% of the revenue the county receives must be used on transportation initiatives, Bailey pointed out that the task force members separated transportation proposals from the rest of the ideas submitted.
“We do not envy you as the ultimate deciders on these projects,” he said.
Chair Alan Maio and Commissioner Ron Cutsinger both thanked Bailey and the other task force members for their service.
“I would hope people would say what is most important to them,” Cutsinger added, referring to project proposals.
During the Jan. 11 meeting, one member of the public did address the commissioners on the subject of the report. Referring to the task force report in the board packet, Robert Luckner, a director of the Siesta Key Association (SKA), noted that more than 250 ideas were proposed for the estimated $80 million in revenue expected each year, if voters approve the extension of the program and the local economy remains in good shape.
“I confess that the Siesta Key Association … was distracted last fall with mega hotels and incorporation, and we didn’t attend any of the workshops,” Luckner continued, referencing proposals for four hotels on the island and the ultimately failed effort to convince the Sarasota County Legislative Delegation to file local bills calling for the creation of the Town of Siesta Key.
Luckner added, “Christian Ziegler’s been very good about saying, ‘Get your ideas in.’”
Ziegler represents the northern part of Siesta Key, which is part of commission District 2.
(Luckner told SKA members during their Jan. 6 meeting that Ziegler had talked with him when both were attending the Jan. 4 Legislative Delegation session on the incorporation proposal.)
SKA members have been coming up with ideas, Luckner continued. Among them are projects seen as improvements at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Stickney Point Road; proposals for more spots on the island where the county’s Siesta Key Breeze trolley could pull over to pick up and discharge passengers, without tying up traffic on the roads; and shelters for Breeze riders.
The task force’s report includes a graphic that shows the number of submissions of projects by zip code. Only four came from Siesta, as noted in that chart.
The task force report
The task force report explains that, of all the submissions received, 155 fell within the jurisdiction of the County Commission. “To assist with the evaluation and ranking of citizen project ideas,” the report said, “County staff assigned each of the project ideas to one of the following categories”: Health/Safety/Welfare; Infrastructure; and Amenities.
The results showed 78 in the Infrastructure category; 44 in the Amenities list; and the final 33 in the Health/Safety/Welfare category.
Subsequently, the report pointed out, each of the submissions was forwarded to the responsible county department so staff could determine whether it was a new, Surtax-eligible idea; already included in a program or project proposed by county staff; or not qualified for Surtax funding. For an example of the latter situation, the report notes, a project might have fallen within the jurisdiction of another governmental entity, such as the Florida Department of Transportation.
After staff reviewed the submissions, the report said, 95 of the ideas were found to have been included already among staff proposals, and another 43 were ineligible for Surtax funding. That left 17 new proposals that could be addressed, the report added.
The next step, the report explained, was to divide the non-transportation projects from those involving transportation improvements. Each task force member assessed every project on a scale of 0 to 5, the report noted, with 0 meaning the proposal would not advance an objective and 5 meaning it would advance the objective “to a great extent.”
Following the assessments, the report continued, county staff combined the rankings and then sorted the projects.
The report shows that the highest ranking of any of the transportation ideas was No. 58, accorded to “Bike lanes on Proctor Road.” No. 59 was given to “Increase connectivity in the [University Town Center] Area” near University Parkway, and No. 61 was accorded to the extension of Lorraine Road from Fruitville Road to Palmer Boulevard. The latter project already is included in county plans, the report noted.
Among the non-transportation projects, the idea with the highest rank — 42 — was “Digitization Initiative,” with “Community meeting and conference room upgrades” and County History Center” tied at 47. All three of those proposals already have been included in county planning, the report said.
A separate county chart in the document explained each of those ideas.
For the Digitization Initiative, that chart noted, “Funding will be used for equipment and software to digitize archives, 3-D objects, audio-visual materials, and photographic collections. Digitized items will be available through the library’s catalog and website for enhanced public access. Digitization spaces/equipment for the public will also be provided through this program.”
As for the meeting room improvements, the chart said, “Libraries will use this funding to make upgrades to community meeting and conference room spaces, which are heavily used by residents. This would include new technology to enhance collaboration, educational workshops, public presentations, and performances.”
Finally, in regard to the History Center, the chart noted, “The County History Center will be a new 30,000 square foot facility which will provide residents and visitors access to collections, events, and spaces in an easy to reach location. A new County History Center will provide access to genealogy collections and local history materials, along with digitization labs for public use and program spaces for cultural and educational workshops. A new facility will allow for exhibition space for alternating collections, meeting rooms, conference rooms, and research areas. The facility will include specialized and comprehensive storage areas for different materials in accordance with prescribed archival and museum standards.”