Regular hours to be restored to Robert L. Taylor Complex, Arlington Park and Payne Park Tennis Center in next fiscal year, based on City Commission direction

First vote on City of Sarasota 2021 fiscal year budget set for Sept. 10

The Robert L. Taylor Community Complex is located near Booker High School in North Sarasota. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Although they did not offer formal direction to staff, the Sarasota city commissioners this week indicated their general agreement with a revised 2021 budget that restores Parks and Recreation Department hours and services staff had proposed eliminating to save revenue during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The new fiscal year will begin on Oct. 1.

In reviewing figures during the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 17, Finance Director Kelly Strickland referenced discussions the commissioners conducted during their July 27 budget workshop and their July 28 Special Meeting.

Strickland presented figures showing the expenses — and potential revenue — related to adding back in regular hours for the Payne Park Tennis Center, the Lido Pool, the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex and the Arlington Park and Aquatic Complex. The extra expenses added up to $757,639, while projected revenue was shown as $130,500.

Along with the Parks and Recreation Department budget adjustments, she noted, staff factored in the board’s request for 2.5% raises for non-bargaining employees, at an expense of $344,379 for the 2021 fiscal year; as well as $33,500 for six months of maintenance for a new public restroom on St. Armands Circle that is expected to be completed in April 2021.

This graphic reflects proposed changes in the City of Sarasota budget for the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Staff had explained during the budget sessions, Strickland reminded the commissioners, that bargaining employees working for the city would get a 3% raise in the 2021 fiscal year. However, no raises were included for non-union workers.

The fund balance she originally proposed to them for the General Fund for FY 2021, Strickland said, was $20,180,594. (The General Fund is made up mostly of property tax payments the city receives each year; it does include some other funds, such as revenue shared by the state.)

After taking into account the additional expenses, Strickland continued, the revised, proposed General Fund unassigned fund balance would be $19,802,715. The ratio of expenditures to fund balance would decline from 26.8% to 26.1%.

Considering the Parks and Rec cuts

As City Manager Tom Barwin had put it during the July 28 Special Meeting, “Reductions that were made late in the process” of preparing the FY 2021 budget called for closing the Lido Pool, along with reducing hours at the Robert L. Taylor Complex and Arlington Park. “And if it is the will of the commission majority for us to restore that funding,” Barwin added that day, “we can certainly do that.”

Freeland Eddie told him her “general concern is ensuring that [Parks and Recreation] programs are not on the chopping block for the next fiscal year.” She earlier had cited the reductions in programming for the “youth in our community.”

Later during that July meeting, Barwin pointed out, “We furloughed basically 75 people in our Parks and Rec Department, appropriately so,” because of the pandemic. “We had no ability to provide programs and space for people to come to,” Barwin continued.

Commissioner Hagen Brody then voiced ongoing frustration with the creation of the Parks and Recreation District a couple of years ago, at city staff’s recommendation; he opposed the plan. “The Parks budget should be returned to the General Fund and prioritized so that we can maintain our level of service through expense reductions in other areas of the General Fund,” he said on July 28.

In response to the board’s direction, Strickland said on Aug. 17, the proposed unassigned fund balance for the Parks and Recreation District would be reduced from $2,389,037 to $1,761,898. The ratio of expenditures to the fund balance for the district would fall from 25.4% to 17.3%, Strickland noted.

This is the proposed revised budget for the City of Sarasota Parks and Recreation District for the 2021 fiscal year. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The reason the Parks and Recreation District budget as originally proposed did not include certain programming, such as summer camps, Strickland continued, was the concern that precautions might still be necessary through much of the new fiscal year, in an effort to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. For example, she said, staff worried that holding summer camps in 2021 would be unwise “because of kids touching each other.”

After she concluded her review of the revised figures on Aug. 17, Strickland told the commissioners, “I don’t really need you to vote on anything [that day].”

The board’s first vote on the proposed budget for the 2021 fiscal year will come during its regular meeting on Sept. 10, she added; the second vote is set for the commission’s final meeting in September.

Delving into details

In response to questions from Commissioner Liz Alpert on Aug. 17, Jerry Fogle, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said that the revenue expected to be generated by youth programs next year at the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex is “not going to be substantial.” He pointed out that staff is “cognizant of the local community, in what we charge …”

The Taylor facility is in North Sarasota, where income levels historically have been lower than in other parts of the city.

The revenues anticipated from Arlington Park programs would be a bit higher than those at Robert L. Taylor, Fogle said, “but we still want to keep [fees] reasonable …”

Then Commissioner Brody asked, “Has staff identified any cuts to cover any of the commission’s requests?”

Strickland replied that staff used fund balance in lieu of cuts.

“So staff hasn’t identified any cuts whatsoever to cover any of those expenses?” Brody asked.

“That’s correct,” Strickland told him.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie offers comments on Aug. 17. News Leader image

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie suggested that staff could delete the summer camps from the proposed budget for the Parks and Recreation District at the outset of the 2021 fiscal year, which would save $300,000. Then, next spring, she indicated the board members could decide whether the public health emergency had subsided sufficiently to make it possible for staff to conduct the camps.

“At that point,” Freeland Eddie said of the middle of the fiscal year, “we amend budgets like we change our shoes. … It would seem like we could do this on a conservative level,” she added of factoring back in Parks and Recreation programs.

Strickland concurred that budget amendments would be one way of handling the summer camps.

In response to another question from Freeland Eddie, Strickland pointed out that staff works to keep the summer camps affordable, to enable as many children as possible to attend them. Thus, the camps do not generate a lot of revenue, Strickland noted.

The Scuba Quest issue

One person who addressed the commissioners during the budget discussion urged them to allow scuba training to resume at the Arlington Park pool as soon as possible.

Speaking for Scuba Quest, which has a Sarasota location, Missy Bekemeyer talked of the wide variety of divers who had been using the city facility. Among them, she said, are first responders and staff of Mote Marine Laboratory, as well as City and County of Sarasota dive team members.

“These divers are your taxpaying citizens,” she stressed.

Prior to the shutdown of parks because of the public health emergency, Bekemeyer pointed out, Scuba Quest groups spent 183 hours a year at the Arlington Park pool. Based on the fees they paid, she added, “This is a million-dollar industry for you annually.”

She also called the facility “the best training center available” for the divers in the community.

Following Bekemeyer’s comments, Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch indicated that the commissioners had received numerous emails making the same request in regard to Scuba Quest’s use of the pool.

Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle answers a question on Aug. 17. News Leader image

In response to a question from Ahearn-Koch, Fogle of Parks and Recreation explained that the Scuba Quest groups usually used the Arlington Park facility on Sundays. Because of the public health emergency, he added, he had furloughed all of the part-time lifeguards and two full-time lifeguards in eliminating weekend hours at the park. The pool is open only Monday through Friday, he added. “We don’t have an overtime budget.”

Staff asked Scuba Quest representatives to consider using the pool in the evenings on weekdays, he continued, as the park hours have been changed so the facility opens at 10 a.m. and does not close until 6:30 p.m. “They took a look at that and they didn’t think they could make that work,” he said of Scuba Quest representatives. “We are hopeful to eventually make that work.”

If the commissioners agreed to restore at least some of the Parks and Recreation funding, Ahearn-Koch replied, would that resolve the issue?

“Absolutely,” Fogle told her. “No question about it.” With more money allocated to the Parks and Recreation District, he said, he could hire part-time lifeguards.

Freeland Eddie then asked whether Scuba Quest’s use of the pool prevented other members of the public from accessing the facility on Sundays.

It did not, Fogle told her, as the facility was closed to the public that day of the week. Arrangements were made just for the Scuba Quest training, with part-time lifeguards working.

At the conclusion of those questions and comments, Ahearn-Koch reminded her colleagues that no vote was necessary that day.