Rainford calls for reducing county’s overall millage rate in 2025 fiscal year

Commissioner asks that county’s constitutional officers engage in effort to lower their budget proposals, along with county department directors

This is the millage slide that Commissioner Neil Rainford referenced during the May 15 discussion. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As the Sarasota County commissioners were wrapping up their May 15 budget workshop, Commissioner Neil Rainford reprised a proposal he made in March, during the board’s first workshop on the county’s 2025 fiscal year budget: achieving a reduction in the overall millage rate.

Last week, the commissioners ended up taking a formal vote on the issue, unanimously directing County Administrator Jonathan Lewis “to go through the procedures” with both county department staffs and the five elected county constitutional officers “to look at lowering the millage to 3.31 or less,” as Rainford put it.

The constitutional officers are Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman; Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller; Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates; Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner; and Property Appraiser Bill Furst.

Rainford has been serving on the board just since June 2023; this is his second year of dealing with the county budget. Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him to the commission to fill out the unexpired term of Commissioner Nancy Detert of Venice, who died unexpectedly in April 2023.

Rainford is seeking election to the District 3 seat that Detert first won in November 2016. His opponent in the Aug. 20 Republican Primary is former three-term Sheriff Tom Knight.

After staff members concluded their presentations during the May 15 workshop, Rainford asked to see one of the slides again that the board members had reviewed earlier. It showed that the county’s millage rate was 3.31 mills from the start of the 2008 fiscal year until the 2016 fiscal year, when it rose to 3.34 mills. For the current fiscal year, it is 3.35.

In 2018, voters approved the issuance of up to $65 million in bonds to cover the extensions of The Legacy Trail to downtown Sarasota and to North Port. Extra millage has been added since the 2020 fiscal year to pay off those bonds. The overall millage rate also provides funding for the mosquito control program.

Each year, prior to the commission’s formal approval of the new budget, county staff with the Office of Financial Management notes what the millage rate would be if it were “rolled back” to ensure that the county took in no more property tax revenue than it had received the prior fiscal year, as property values have climbed steadily in recent years. However, the commissioners typically have not discussed the “rolled back rate” before taking their votes on the budgets.

This is part of the millage resolution that the commissioners approved in September 2023 for the current fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 15, Rainford pointed out, “We as a county are facing rising costs, but certainly the taxpayer in their own family units are facing the same thing.”

Therefore, “I wanted to see if I could gain consensus from the board for our administration to bring back a potential to cut [the millage rate], based on where it is currently … I don’t think it’s that much to really make that cut,” Rainford said.

Chair Michael Moran asked for clarification: “Are you asking staff to make the suggested cuts?” referring to the directors and staff of departments whose expenses the commission controls.

Rainford reiterated his earlier comment about making an effort to lower the millage rate for the 2025 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

County Administrator Lewis responded that the county departments’ share of the annual General Fund budget has continued to fall over the past years, reaching the 39.5% mark this year. Allocations to most of the constitutional officers also come out of that fund, which contains all of the county’s major sources of revenue, including the property tax payments.

Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates for years has pointed out that she returns money to the county each year after she covers her office’s expenses. The excess fees that she turns over to the county would be called “profit,” in the private sector, she has noted.

The constitutionals, too?

As  the May 15 discussion continued, Lewis asked whether Rainford wanted him to ask the constitutional officers to try to pare their budget requests for FY 2025, in an effort to reach the 3.31-mill mark.

“From my perspective,” Rainford replied, “I think it’s across the board.” He added, “I just want to know what the options are, so we can evaluate them.”

Rainford pointed out that taxpayers have been dealing with inflationary factors, just as the commissioners have, in paying for projects and covering other expenses.

“A few more dollars back in their pockets is necessary,” he added, referring to county taxpayers. “We need to evaluate that seriously,” he said.

Commissioner Joe Neunder added, “I have no heartburn engaging in an academic exercise for the purposes of just seeing what the numbers look like.”

Neunder then sought clarification of Lewis’ question: “Were you asking whether or not you understand us to also reach out … and make that clear to the constitutionals as well?”

Lewis replied, “Obviously, the constitutionals are not a group. There are five separate constitutionals, all operating [on the basis of the specific state statutes that apply to them]. “It’s not fair … to aggregate them,” Lewis added. “It’s not fair to talk about them that way.”

This graph shows the changes over the past years in the portion of the county’s Genreral Fund budget allocated to the operations of the constitutional officers, compared to the funds that go to county departments. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then Lewis asked again whether Rainford was referring just to the county departments that operate with General Fund allocations. (Some county departments, such as Solid Waste, use the money they generate through services to pay for their expenses.)

“I think across the whole 100%,” Rainford told Lewis. The state cut back on its expenses, he added, in anticipation that its revenue will be lower over the next three years. “I think we just have to be frugal with [county] expenses and cognizant that the taxpayer’s been burdened for the last several years, with property taxes going up.”

If county property values continue to rise, Rainford noted, he anticipates that the county will have sufficient revenue to cover its necessary expenses.

“I think it’s an opportunity to give the taxpayers some relief,” Rainford pointed out.

Lewis responded, “We know we’re going to get some level of increase, based on property evaluation increases …” Nonetheless, he cautioned, the county could end up with expenses “we don’t have a say over” in the next fiscal year. He was referring to actions that the Florida Legislature could take.

For another example, Lewis said, like county residents, the county might have to contend with higher property insurance rates.

Moreover, Lewis warned that public misperception could ensue, based on how commissioners characterized a millage rate reduction. Perhaps the best approach, he suggested, would be “ ‘We’re just tightening our belts.’ ”

“I think that’s very fair,” Rainford told Lewis.

“We need to cut any waste that’s possible,” Rainford said. “We should be looking at that every year.”
Rainford then stressed that all he is seeking at this point are options for lowering the millage rate.

Commissioner Neunder added, “I’m fully aware that we have the second lowest millage rate in Florida, and we have a history of very conservative budgeting.”

Neunder repeated his earlier comment: “I’m all for doing a healthy academic exercise. I’d rather have [the result] and not need it than need it and not have it.”

Moreover, Neunder said, “People have had to tighten their belts in the private sector across the board.” For example, he continued, some people are refraining from spending on vacations.

When Lewis asked whether the board members wanted to vote on a motion, Rainford replied right away with a motion including the direction for staff. Neunder seconded the motion.

No other commissioner offered comments on the issue.

2 thoughts on “Rainford calls for reducing county’s overall millage rate in 2025 fiscal year”

  1. “… fill out the unexpired term of Commissioner Nancy Detert of Venice, who died unexpectedly in April 2023.”

    Ms. Detert died suddenly or tragically or in some other manner. She cannot have died “unexpectedly” because all people expect to die at one time or another. This is from my long-ago obit writing Journalism 101 class. 🙂

    Editor’s Note: Since Commissioner Detert was alone when she died, and you apparently were not surprised at her passing, you might hear from the SCSO about your foreknowledge. Almost everyone in county government was surprised, which is why her death was characterized by us as “unexpected.”

    We utilize a hybridized style book, curated over the past 45 years from the best style books in the industry. Our policy is that when someone dies without general expectation of the immediacy of their passing, their death may be reported as “unexpected.” Of course, you are free to edit your newspaper as you see fit.

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  2. Rather than reduce the millage, which would just add a pittance for individuals, why not use those funds for needed mental health services, housing for the homeless and other areas of need where our rich county is failing!

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