Funding gap originally expected for 2018 expected to be wiped out by sale of surplus land and increased property value, among other factors
With two public hearings set for next month on the document, the Sarasota County Commission this week took its last formal look at the tentative 2017 fiscal year budget of $1,094,764,401 — a 0.3 percent increase from the current budget, as County Administrator Tom Harmer pointed out.
The operating portion will rise by 4.1 percent, he added — from $683,853,691 to $711,586,703.
The major change, he explained, is the rollover of $500,000 set aside for the county’s revived Community Reinvestment Program, from which the board has made no allocations this year. (See the related story in this issue.)
Harmer reminded the board during its Aug. 22 workshop that a number of significant issues remain on the horizon that could have a potential impact on the budget during the next fiscal year — from the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park to funding for a new fleet facility in South County for the Sheriff’s Office to the planned North Extension of The Legacy Trail.
The board does have its $8-million contingency fund for the Rowing Championships, Commissioner Christine Robinson reminded him — money it has referred to as “the Barbetta fund,” she noted. The funds were set aside in 2013 after then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta won over the majority of his colleagues in his effort to change county policy to require that the emergency reserve operating fund reflect 75 days of operations instead of 90. Barbetta proposed that the resulting $8.1 million could be used to pay for capital improvements — such as those for new or improved sports facilities — that could provide a significant return on the investment. However, the board decided at its December 2015 retreat to keep the money set aside in the event unforeseen circumstances necessitated additional spending on the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
The County Commission is expected in early September to hear the first in a series of monthly updates about progress on the planning for that international event. Information is to be provided to the board from the director of the Championships and from the new CEO of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA), which manages events at Benderson Park.
“I don’t want anybody in the public to think that we don’t have a contingency,” Robinson said.
Tourist Development Tax revenue also could be tapped to help cover any unexpected expenses, Harmer added.
Other factors that have resulted in changes to the tentative budget since the commission last discussed it in June, Harmer continued, are an increase in the final taxable value of county property, a reduction in expenses for Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and SCAT’s receipt of a grant. Overall, he said, the proposed budget reflects a $452,201 drop in spending for departments the County Commission controls. Total allocations for the latter are up 2.7 percent for the next fiscal year, he noted, adding that policy calls for county staff to keep the increase no higher than 3 percent.
Among other changes is a $3,308 rise in the Tax Collector’s Office expenses for FY17 and a $12,514 reduction in contractual services for the Public Defender’s Office for next year; both adjustments followed presentation of those offices’ budgets in June.
The total for General Fund spending in FY17 is projected at $269,254,966, compared to $258,506,462 in the current fiscal year.
Property tax revenue is anticipated to climb from $128,165,878 in FY16 to $138,297,666 in FY17, thanks to the final property value of 8.2 percent released by the Property Appraiser’s Office in July. The original estimate, Harmer noted, was an increase of 7.1 percent. Additionally, he said, the state’s most recent projection — as of this month — calls for an uptick of 6.8 percent in property values for the 2018 fiscal year; the previous estimate was 7.2 percent.
The latest state projections also call for the FY19 property value to rise by 6.8 percent, instead of the previous estimate of 6.4 percent, Harmer told the board, while the projections for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years remain unchanged: 9 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively.
Then and now
With the latest data plugged into county software used to project General Fund spending over the next five years, an expected shortfall for FY18 fell from $6,540,377 to $2,874,929. Likewise, a predicted gap between revenue and expenses for FY19 declined from $11,566,978 to $8,444,457.
However, Harmer continued, the approximately $827,000 in proceeds from the sale of surplus county property on Laurel Street — a transaction that closed on Aug. 19 — along with money that is not expected to be spent in certain county funds should wipe out that gap for FY18. Furthermore, “a minimal gap [is] forecast in [FY]19 at this point.”
Commissioner Charles Hines noted that when he first was elected to the board in 2012, the anticipated budget gaps were in the range of $20 million to $30 million, looking five years ahead. As Robinson and Commissioner Carolyn Mason prepare to leave the board in November because of term limits, Hines told them he knew it had been their goal to depart with the county “in a very strong position. I think you all have accomplished that,” he added, though he acknowledged “a lot of people” have been responsible for the county’s financial health.
“I came in at a really miserable time,” Robinson replied. (She was appointed to the board in late 2010 to fill the unexpired term of Commissioner Shannon Staub.)
“It’s really stunning that we didn’t raise taxes in the [economic] downturn,” Robinson said. The Economic Uncertainty Fund that past boards set aside had made it possible for Sarasota County to keep its parks open, for example, she pointed out, when many other counties had to close such facilities.
The latest General Fund update shows the county budgeting $36.8 million in the 2017 fiscal year and almost $30 million in FY18 from that “rainy day” reserve, though past figures presented by the county’s Office of Financial Management have shown that far less of the money has been used than anticipated in recent years to fill revenue gaps.
In spite of the county’s continuing to draw on that Economic Uncertainty Reserve Fund, Robinson said, “the cities seem to think that we are flush with money. They are always asking for things from us.”
Hines referred to the list of issues on the horizon that Harmer had referenced earlier. “We’ve got a lot of big things that we’ve got to address.”
Nonetheless, Chair Al Maio pointed out that 2017 will be the 18th fiscal year for which the county has not implemented a millage rate increase.
The County Commission will hold its public hearings on the budgets on Sept. 12 at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice and on Sept. 21 at the Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.