Proposal for accelerating timeline for next county Surtax Program referendum dies for lack of consensus

Commissioner Moran broaches idea of November 2020 vote, instead of waiting until November 2022, on continuing 1% sales tax dedicated to construction and improvements of county facilities

This slide shows the history of the county’s surtax program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis joked later, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho was only one slide into three-slide presentation about the county’s Surtax Program when Chair Michael Moran brought up an idea that launched nearly 30 minutes of debate.

“Don’t anybody panic here,” Moran began on May 21, but would it be possible to move up the next Surtax Program referendum from November 2022 to the November General Election this year?

Ultimately, with what Moran characterized as no “strong consensus” from his colleagues, his idea about accelerating the referendum timeline died.

The 1% infrastructure surtax, which is a voter-approved, countywide sales tax, is restricted to funding projects such as the construction of and improvements to roads, parks and libraries. The first referendum was conducted in June 1989, as Botelho noted during the commission’s May 21 budget workshop. The most recent renewal of the program was in November 2007, with collections beginning in September 2009.

Botelho had pointed out that, because the current surtax authorization will end in December 2024, staff already has been planning for the next referendum to take place in November 2022.

After Botelho went through the surtax history on his first slide, Moran suggested the earlier timeline for the next referendum — for discussion purposes, Moran stressed — as part of the county’s recovery from the economic downturn created by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Chair Michael Moran. News Leader image

If voters were to approve what would be Surtax IV, Moran continued, staff could go ahead and seek bonds for projects, with surtax revenue pledged to pay back the bonds.

Still, Moran acknowledged, “It would be quite an undertaking.” Addressing Botelho, Moran asked, “Is that physically possible?”

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner has a deadline for measures to be placed on the November ballot, Botelho replied, so checking with Turner’s office would be the first step in ascertaining the likelihood that the acceleration of the schedule could take place.

“The only other caveat I would add,” Botelho said, is that county staff’s practice has been to provide the public “a full project list, so the voters know what we plan on spending those revenues for.” That list, he continued, contains not only county projects but also those of the Sarasota County School Board and all the municipalities in the county.

“All [of them] would have to create their project lists as well, if we wanted to do what we’ve done in the past,” Botelho told Moran.

“I get it,” Moran replied. “It would be pushing a huge boulder up a hill …” However, he continued, “Historically, this community is very smart. [Members of the public] know the massive billion-dollar ramification of this conversation.”

“That would be a bit of a rush,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said of the effort to hold the Surtax Program referendum this November. “I would have no objection to putting it on in 2020,” she added, “but I don’t think we have hard enough numbers … You kind of have to build your case. … What are they going to get for their money?”

“I think it’s kind of hard to ask people [to renew] the surtax [in November],” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, given the state of the economy. However, he continued, if the commission stayed on track for a November 2022 referendum, and it failed, “What’s the recourse there? Would you wait till November 2024?”

Either November 2024, Botelho said, or the scheduling of a special election in 2023.

(Botelho also had noted earlier that the first two surtax programs were valid for 10 years; Surtax III was established for 15 years, so that would be the plan for Surtax IV, as well.)

This is a list of proposed allocations of Surtax III funds from the 2021 fiscal year through the 2024 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“This surprise suggestion from Commissioner Moran, which he’s consistently saying he’s not advocating for, might be a good idea, and it might not be the [heavy] lift that we think it is,” Commissioner Alan Maio said. Because of the reduction in surtax collections during the Great Recession, Maio noted, a number of projects on the list for funding have not been pursued.

“Yes, it would be going to the taxpayers at a very difficult time,” Maio continued, “but they’ve already been doing this. It’s not a new tax. … I think the idea has some merit.”

In response to further board comments, County Administrator Lewis told the commissioners that if they wanted to pursue the new timeline, “I’d rather know that direction today. … There is a lot of coordination with other entities.”

Detert pointed out that the economic consequences of the pandemic would be at the forefront of voters’ minds if the referendum were moved up to November. “I think it probably would be to our benefit.” However, she added, “If Jonathan doesn’t want the rush, I would just as soon wait.”

Then Lewis told the board that he had just checked on the Supervisor of Elections’ deadline for November ballot items. The deadline, Lewis said, is Aug. 14.

“We can chew on [this idea],” Moran responded.

“I think it’s worth looking at,” Ziegler said. “After the meeting, I’m going to be asking some questions [of members of the public in regard to their view of the proposal].”

Further pondering

Moran then told Lewis that he would be interested in knowing the chances that the referendum would succeed in November.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis makes a point during the May 21 budget workshop. News Leader image

Lewis responded that if the commissioners were serious about the prospect of the earlier timeline, he would like their direction to proceed in working with leaders of the Sarasota County School District and the municipalities, “to see their appetite …”

“If that’s something you really want done,” Lewis added, “we need to start tomorrow. … I would think that the city managers would need to get [direction] from their boards.”

Nonetheless, Lewis stressed, “To be clear, we don’t have a problem with [the accelerated timeline]; we just need direction.”

“If we have to decide today, which we would … I think that’s too much of a rush, frankly,” Detert said.

Moran then suggested that Lewis could go ahead and call the other local government leaders. Lewis might receive “an absolutely, ‘We’re all in,’ because they have similar [economic concerns],” Moran added.

The next Council of Governments (COG) session in the county, which representatives of the School Board and all the municipalities attend, along with county commissioners, would be “a great place to make [this] the sole discussion,” Commissioner Maio pointed out, adding that Moran “leads for us at the COG meeting.”

Moran then talked of staff’s “ability for a very long period of time for strategic, long-term planning [for projects], 15 years out,” if the referendum were set for the November ballot and it passed. Having early approval for Surtax IV, he added, “would be a game-changer for any type of recovery discussion.”

Lewis again expressed a desire for the commissioners’ direction that day, if working toward the early timeline was the consensus.

“I would just like for you to explore it,” Moran responded.

Then Commissioner Charles Hines entered the discussion, reminding his colleagues of action they took a few weeks ago. Although they were planning for a November referendum on a Mental Health Care Special District in the unincorporated part of the county, Hines said, “and there was some pretty big support for it [in the community], we pulled it because of what was happening with this virus and the lack of opportunity to really work with the public this summer to sell that referendum.”

This is a question, and the breakdown of answers to it in a county survey, regarding services the Mental Health Care Special District could provide. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Noting the timeline Botelho had shown the board that afternoon, with a November 2022 referendum planned for Surtax IV, Hines stressed that if voters do not support a renewal of the funding, the commission could pursue another referendum in November 2024.

“I think we’re just suddenly jumping too quick to replace one [referendum] we decided not to do,” Hines added.

Moreover, he continued, the commissioners would be the ones having to work this summer to explain to the public why the timeline was accelerated by two years, and none of them knows whether large gatherings will be possible.

The economy potentially could return to its pre-COVID-19 health within six months, Hines said, referencing comments that Sean Snaith, a nationally known economist and director of the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Economic Forecasting, had offered that morning during a presentation to the commission. “I just think this is kind of a big reach and something we may not need to do,” Hines added of moving up the Surtax IV referendum.

“That is a very thoughtful, excellent point, and I agree with that,” Moran replied.

“I don’t feel a strong consensus [for the idea],” Moran told Lewis, “and I don’t want to add to your workload on this …”

As Deputy County Administrator Botelho returned to his PowerPoint slides, he explained that staff would begin discussions with representatives of the School Board and the municipalities, along with the creation of a Surtax IV project list, as originally planned. County staff members would be back before the commission within the next three to six months, Botelho added, for an update.