Voting unanimously on Rainford’s motion, County Commission directs staff to work on 3.30 millage rate for 2025 fiscal year budget

Staff told to lower expenses for departments under commission control

This slide in the workshop materials this week, regarding the proposed 2025 fiscal year county budget, shows the proposed budgets for the departments that the County Commission controls that do not rely on fees and assessments for operations.

With Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford having advocated for such action on two prior occasions this year, he and his board colleagues formally voted unanimously on June 20 to direct County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to prepare the 2025 fiscal year budget based on a millage rate of 3.30 mills.

That would be the lowest millage rate in 37 years, Rainford pointed out during the commission’s June 20 budget workshop in downtown Sarasota.

One mill represents $1,000 of the value of a piece of property.”’

Lewis will trim money from the budgets of the departments over which the commission has control, instead of seeking any reductions in the proposed budgets of the county’s constitutional officers, such as the sheriff and the clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller.

The amount would be approximately $4.4 million, county administrative staff noted on June 20.

Rainford pointed to the likelihood that the county’s property value will rise again in the reports due from the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office by July 1, to meet a state requirement. Any increase in the value, he indicated, would help lower the $4.4-million figure.

The preliminary increase in the county’s property value, released in late May, was 9.78%.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said that the July 1 property value in the past has proven to be the same as the June 1 figure,” or it goes up slightly — not a lot …”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger did say, “It wouldn’t disappoint me if any of the constitutionals decided to help a little bit in this process.”

With the direction this week, Lewis said that he and his staff would prepare an item for the commission’s regular meeting agenda for July 9, calling for a not-to-exceed millage rate of 3.30 mills for advertisement in the state-mandated Truth in Millage (TRIM) notices that will be mailed out to all property owners in August.

Lewis did emphasize that if they set the rate at 3.30 mills in July, the commissioners would not be able to raise it at a later time before approving the final budget for the 2025 fiscal year. The last budget hearing will be held on Sept. 26 in downtown Sarasota.

On June 19, the first day of the commission’s budget workshops this week, Lewis showed the board members a slide putting the total preliminary budget for the 2025 fiscal year — which will begin Oct. 1 — at $2,093,720,674. That figure is up 3.9%, compared to the budget for this fiscal year, the slide said.

This slide shows details about major revenue sources for the county’s General Fund, out of which the commission pays for the operations of many of its departments and the operations of most of the constitutional officers. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Expressing the need to help county residents

Rainford brought up the millage issue after the board members reached the end of their June 20 workshop agenda.

At first, Chair Michael Moran suggested that it might be better to have the discussion on June 21, as “We have two major department heads coming [that day].”He was referring to the planned budget presentations that morning of Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman and Karen Rushing, clerk of the Circuit Court and county comptroller.

Still, Moran said, he was not necessarily opposed to having the discussion on June 20.

“We obviously have some influence over those two constitutional officers,” Rainford initially responded. Then he indicated that that influence was not that strong.

With no objection from the other commissioners about pursuing the millage discussion that day, Rainford asked county staff to show the board a slide with the county millage rates going back to the 1987 fiscal year. The millage that year was 3.26, Rainford noted.

This is the slide with the millage rates going back to the 1987 fiscal year. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think it’d be a heavy lift this year,” he said, “to get to [that figure].”

However, he continued, he believed that the board “could potentially get to a 37-year low.”

Then he suggested 3.30 mills. In March and May, during budget workshops, he used the figure of 3.31 mills.

Commissioner Joe Neunder concurred with the June 20 proposal. “We’re experiencing very high inflation,” Neunder added. “We’re all tightening our belt.” Moving to the rate that Rainford had suggested, “in my mind,” Neunder said, “is what my constituents in my district are telling me.”

As the discussion continued, Moran told his colleagues, “My vote would be for the [budget reductions] to come from the [county departments], not the constitutionals,” as the constitutional officers do not answer to the County Commission.

Lewis told the board members that if they did direct him to lower the department budgets to achieve the $4.4 million in recurring savings, he would proceed as he did in 2018, when the commission at that time told him to follow the same type of process. That year, the county was dealing with higher expenses and less money in its Economic Uncertainty Reserve to plug any holes.

After Rainford made his motion, he said, “We’ve obviously, you know, studied this [FY 2025] budget intensely [this week]. … We do have a record revenue. … It’s time to create more affordability for our citizens. Going to a 37-year-low on the millage rate does that.”

This slide shows the impacts of commissions keeping millage rates low over the past years. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Neunder, who seconded Rainford’s motion, added, “I think this sends a very clear and empathetic message from the board … that we are doing our part to acknowledge the concerns of the citizens … doing with a little bit less, as we all have to do in today’s economy.”

Referencing the higher costs for county residents, Commissioner Mark Smith did ask that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the commissioners spend time discussing ways to help residents with rising housing costs.

No one else commented on that point.

Moran noted that he had been on the board since November 2016. In his first year as a commissioner, he continued, the county’s Economic Uncertainty Reserve was down to about $906,000.

That fund is separate from the county’s Disaster Fund, which, in accord with board policy, holds enough money to allow the county to operate for 75 days with no revenue coming into the county’s coffers.

“Today,” Moran continued, “we’re bumping up roughly against $50 million [in the Economic Uncertainty Reserve],” even though the county went through a downturn during the COVID pandemic, it has seen the population increase by tens of thousands in recent years, and it has endured two “massive hurricanes,” in 2017 and 2022.

This slide shows General Fund budget projections over the next several years, with details about the county’s Disaster and Economic Uncertainty reserves. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Referring to the property tax revenue the county receives, Moran added, “We never lost sight that this isn’t our money. This is taxpayer money, and we treat it appropriately.”

“I think there’s absolutely sound reasoning to make this move today,” Moran said, as he does not believe it would affect the county’s “top-tier rating” with Fitch Ratings and S&P Global Ratings.

He pointed out that the public will have opportunities to appear before the board to offer comments on the proposed millage rate reduction before it wins final approval.

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