County commissioners cite software’s value in educating the public about the spending they do and do not control
During the Sarasota County commissioners’ most recent discussion of financial issues, Chair Paul Caragiulo at one point interjected what journalists would call a “sidebar.”
A couple of weeks before that Oct. 11 meeting, Caragiulo noted that Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho — who also serves as the county’s chief financial management officer — sent Caragiulo an interesting prototype, so Caragiulo could give it a try.
Called the Property Tax Allocation Calculator, it allows an individual to enter his or her taxable property value and then it shows the person exactly how that money is divvied up.
“It might seem like a little thing,” Caragiulo said. “It’s a very important thing, and I think it’s going to be instrumental in trying to explain to folks what these [budget] decisions entail.”
Botelho told Caragiulo he hoped to see the calculator “go live” on the Office of Financial Management’s webpage by the end of that week. “We’re close.”
One critical facet of the county’s budget process that many people do not understand, Caragiulo pointed out, is that the County Commission funds a wide variety of things that are out of its organizational control. The calculator provides “useful information” in educating people, he added.
In the same line of discussion, Commissioner Alan Maio noted that even though the board adopted a 2018 fiscal year budget of $1,131,424,334, it has limited access to funds it can cut. For that matter, Maio continued, the commission is limited in what it can cut out of its approximately $294-million General Fund, which is made up mostly of property tax revenue.
As Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said earlier that day, the board cannot require the county’s constitutional officers — the sheriff and the tax collector, among them — to reduce their budgets, because those separately elected local government leaders oversee their own operations.
Only 44% of the General Fund is under the commission’s purview, Maio pointed out. Therefore, the board is able to look only at certain departments under its control to find $5.4 million in spending reductions for FY18, to make up for revenue that would have been anticipated this fiscal year if the board had approved a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities. (The commissioners’ goal is to not take that $5.4 million from the county’s Economic Uncertainty Reserve, they have emphasized, even though they agreed to that short-term measure so they could adopt the budget in September.)
“This wasn’t something that we can do in half-an-hour and why it’s so difficult,” Maio added of the effort to identify spending that can be decreased or eliminated.
That is all the more reason he was pleased with the Property Tax Allocation Calculator, Caragiulo said: That personalizes the situation for taxpayers.
In response to a question this week from The Sarasota News Leader about the development of the software, Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester wrote in an Oct. 23 email that the calculator does just as its name — and Caragiulo — indicated: It “helps residents see how their county taxes are allocated. When residents look at their tax bill,” Winchester continued, “some taxes are relatively self-explanatory,” such as those for the county’s Mosquito Control program or Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division.
“However, taxes to the Sarasota County Taxing Authority support constitutional officers (Sheriff, Clerk of Circuit Court, Tax Collector, etc.) and various departments under the Board of County Commissioners [Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) and libraries, for examples], which isn’t obvious by just looking at your tax bill,” Winchester added.
To find the Property Tax Allocation Calculator, visit the webpage for the Office of Financial Management (which is listed under the “O’s” in the A-Z finder on the bar at the top of the county homepage, www.scgov.net. On the Office of Financial Management page, scroll down past the block headed Current Budget Documents.
Click on the calculator link, and follow the directions. The bar at the top of the page that will appear provides three choices, including Tax Bill Breakdown and Sample TRIM [Truth in Millage] Notice.
The News Leader entered $200,000 in the calculator and found that the total amount of taxes paid this year to the Sarasota County Taxing Authority would be $642.56. The following information was among the details:
- $302.54 goes to the constitutional officers and other boards and agencies, such as the county’s Charter Review Board.
- $238.26 goes to departments under the purview of the County Commission, with $39.48 — the largest amount — designated for Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources.
- $64.32 goes to “Non-General Fund” expenses: Health & Human Services; the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program (ESLPP) and the Englewood Community Redevelopment Area (CRA).
The sample TRIM notice offers the exact amounts the property owner will pay to the Sarasota County School Board and the county’s EMS assessment, among other details.