Resolution of city/county dispute over last CRA Trust Fund payment could come next month

City Commission to decide whether to send county one final bill and/or to pursue State Statute remedy of issue

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Next month, the Sarasota city commissioners will make a decision: Drop their contention that Sarasota County owes the one more payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund, or pursue conflict resolution proceedings outlined by the Florida Statutes.

Given the breadth of materials he and Deputy City Attorney Marlon Brown provided the board members ahead of their Sept. 6 regular meeting, City Attorney Robert Fournier said, he wanted them to have adequate time for review, consideration of the options and opportunity to ask follow-up questions of city staff.

“I think we could make a credible case” that, because of the authority the county delegated to the city in 1986 to establish the CRA, Fournier explained, one more payment is due.

Fournier pointed to documentation city staff research has brought to light, which has details contrasting those the county has provided to assert its claim that the last payment was due in 2015.

“As everyone knows,” Fournier pointed out, “taxes are collected on the basis of a calendar year rather than a fiscal year.”

Because the Downtown Sarasota CRA was established in 1986, Fournier noted this week, 1987 would have been the first year the tax-increment revenue was collected. That also would mean the 30th payment would be due in 2016, he said.

The revenue for the CRA Trust Fund derives from the difference between the value of the property in the redevelopment area the year that area was established and each subsequent year. The greater the increase in value, therefore, the higher the tax payments the city and county have made.

The city’s Downtown Master Plan — which is the Community Redevelopment Plan, Fournier explained — was amended in 2004 to allow for money from the CRA Trust Fund to be used for community policing and other new purposes. The County Commission concurred with that plan and even noted that the CRA would be extended to 2020, he said, stressing that he did not want to try to argue for the extra four years.

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo
City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Typically, the city’s finance director — and now assistant city manager — John Lege would send the county a bill in October for its CRA payment, Fournier continued. This year, it was expected to be about $4.5 million, Lege has reported. That was why Fournier suggested the City Commission wait until next month to decide on its course of action.

“I think we want to act in a way that promotes dialogue, if that’s possible to do, and not be confrontational about it,” Fournier added.

Furthermore, Lege had advised him, Fournier said, that the city has bonded indebtedness to which the tax-increment financing of the CRA is pledged. That will not be paid off until Nov. 1, Fournier added. An opinion of the Florida Attorney General’s Office also makes it clear to him, Fournier continued, that a CRA has to remain in effect while debt is outstanding.

Resolving governmental conflicts

Referencing the material Brown had provided them about the Florida Governmental Conflict Resolution Act (Florida State Statute 164), Fournier explained that if the City Commission chose to continue contending that the county owes the CRA Trust Fund one more payment, it could pass a resolution to pursue conflict resolution with the County Commission. A certified copy of that resolution and a letter would be sent to the county within five days of the city board’s approval of the resolution. Then the County Commission would have 10 days to decide how to respond, he continued. “I think their participation is optional,” he added. His understanding of the law, he noted, is that if one governmental party wishes to pursue conflict resolution, the other party has to participate in it. Thus, Fournier said of the county commissioners, “It may behoove them to just go ahead and do it early.”

Still, he stressed, the City Commission has the prerogative not to take such action.

Brown pointed out that if the City Commission opted to pursue the state remedy, the first step would be for city and county administrative staff to try to reach an agreement before the boards would engage in any discussion of the matter.

The statute says, “After the initiation of the conflict resolution procedure, and after proper notice by certified letter has been given, a conflict assessment meeting shall occur. The meeting shall be scheduled to occur within 30 days of the receipt of the letter initiating the conflict resolution procedure. … The conflict assessment meeting shall be scheduled to allow the attendance by the appropriate personnel from each primary conflicting governmental entity. The chief administrator, or his or her designee, for each governmental entity … shall be present at this meeting.”

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group
Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group

In response to a question from Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie, Fournier said that if the city brought suit against the county over the final payment, the court could side with the county’s reading of the historical documents governing the CRA. “That would cut things off at the pass …”

“Maybe [State Statute] 164 is the way to go,” Brown told the commissioners.

City Manager Tom Barwin pointed out that, in his decades of experience in local government, his understanding always has been that an agreement that is supposed to provide for a certain number of payments means just that: all the payments have to be made. In this case, a CRA that has been established for 30 years requires 30 payments. “[Any other interpretation] is really rather meaningless.”

When Commissioner Suzanne Atwell asked about waiting until October to decide how to proceed, Fournier responded, “I don’t want to be perceived as trying to push this forward.”

After she asked whether by waiting, the city board might have to deal with a new County Commission, Fournier told her, “Possibly.”

Two new county commissioners will be seated in November.

Brown said he is hopeful that the staff members could resolve the dispute during the preliminary phase of discussions outlined in the statute.

“That would be optimum,” Fournier said.

Mayor Willie Shaw then pointed out that he understood similar disputes have arisen around the state. When he asked whether Fournier had researched them, Fournier said he was aware of them but he had not delved into them. He could try to do so before the next City Commission discussion next month, Fournier added.

“I’ll look forward to our coming back in 30 days,” Shaw told Fournier, with consensus from the other commissioners to wait until then to decide how to proceed.