Proposed increase in Sarasota City Commission salaries to be included in referendum on Nov. 8 ballot

City Charter amendment must win voter approval before change could go into effect

The City Commission sits in session on July 18. News Leader image

Following a unanimous decision on July 5, when the first reading of the ordinance was conducted, the Sarasota City Commission ended up voting 4-1 this week — after the second reading — to approve a referendum for the Nov. 8 General Election ballot that would result in an increase in the commissioner’s salaries.

Commissioner Hagen Brody — who was not present for the July 5 discussion — cast the “No” vote on July 18. Following a March 28 board discussion of proposed amendments to the Sarasota City Charter, both Brody and Mayor Erik Arroyo voted against raising the salaries.

As City Attorney Robert Fournier explained during the July 5 discussion, the members of the Charter Review Committee, whom the commissioners appointed last year, called for the salary increase.

The current salary for a city commissioner is $29,514.68, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader last week.

The Charter as written calls for the city commissioners to be paid two-thirds of the salary of a county commissioner in a county with a population comparable to that of the city of Sarasota, Fournier noted.

Fournier pointed out that the Charter Review Committee had recommended that city commissioners be paid $40,000 a year, with a 2% annual increase “based on the original principal and accumulated increases.”

The Charter Review Committee members also called for the mayor get an annual salary of $45,000 — again, with a 2% adjustment each year.

The recommendation for the 2% adjustment was to be eliminated from the proposed Charter amendment, based on the March 28 City Commission discussion, Fournier noted during his July 5 remarks.

City Attorney Robert Fournier offers remarks on July 18 as City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs listens. News Leader image

Further, Fournier reminded the commissioners that, during their March discussion, they agreed to modify the committee’s salary proposals. The majority called for the Charter amendment to say that each commissioner — including the mayor — would earn 100% of the salary for a county commissioner in a county with a population comparable to that of the city.

With that change, Fournier said, a city commissioner would make “approximately $44,000 a year.”

He recommended that the figure be included in the ballot question for city voters in the Nov. 8 General Election.

Additionally, Fournier suggested that if citizens approve the Charter change, the effective date of the salary adjustment should be the date of the beginning of the first city pay period after the Nov. 8 election. “I should consult with the Human Resources Department,” he said, on that actual date.

The county commission population group for salary determinations relevant to the city has a range from 50,000 to 99,999, as shown in a document released in September 2021 by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

This is part of Florida Statute 145.031, which deals with county commissioners’ salaries. Image courtesy State of Florida

In contrast, the Sarasota County commissioners are at a higher salary level, given the fact that the county has more than 400,000 residents; the city has close to 60,000.

Mayor Erik Arroyo. File image

Fournier also pointed out that the Florida Statutes provide a formula for county commissioners’ salary adjustments, based on population counts provided by the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR). (As of April 1, 2021, BEBR estimated Sarasota County’s population at 441,508.)

The Sarasota County Commission salary for the 2022 fiscal year is $92,935, the Office of Economic and Demographic Research says.

Mayor Arroyo had suggested during the March 28 discussion that the city board members consider a Charter amendment that would lower their salaries. Service on the commission, he said, “should be a civic duty.”

Commissioner Liz Alpert told him that she did not believe any of the board members had sought office for the money. However, she added, without sufficient compensation, only independently wealthy people could afford to serve on the commission.

Tweaking the ballot language

As the July 5 discussion continued, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch referred to his proposed ballot question. “I read it as very confusing,” she said and then suggested tweaking it, for clarity.

“I see exactly what you mean,” Fournier replied.

She agreed to the modification that he proposed and thanked him.

This is the July 5 version of the ballot language for the Nov. 8 referendum. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
This is the July 18 version of the ballot language for the Nov. 8 referendum. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Commissioner Alpert raised the concern that voters might think the city commissioners would be getting the same amount of pay as the Sarasota County commissioners, based on the ballot language.

After Fournier pointed out that the ballot question references the Florida Statutes’ provision for county commission salaries, along with the fact that the City Commission salaries would be linked to the county commissioners’ pay in in a specific population group, Alpert told him, “OK.”

This is a section of the ordinance that the commissioners adopted on July 18 on a 4-1 vote. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

In response to another question from Alpert, Fournier said he believes the latest state salaries for county commissioners, prior to the Nov. 8 General Election, still would be in effect through the 2023 fiscal year.

However, he told her, he had space for extra words in the ballot question, which — per state law — cannot exceed 75 words. “I only used 52 words here,” Fournier noted. “I just didn’t want to make [the question] too long.”

Thus, he said, he would modify the ballot question to make it clear that $44,000 would be the pay for the first year after the Nov. 8 election, if the amendment won voter approval.

With no further discussion on July 5, Ahearn-Koch made the motion to approve the Charter amendment referendum for the Nov. 8 General Election, and Vice Mayor Kyle Battie seconded it. That day, the motion passed unanimously when City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs polled the members for their votes.