Commissioners also approve question for November ballot in regard to issuing bonds pledged to Surtax IV revenue
With the addition of two more funding proposals this week, the Sarasota County commissioners left themselves about $7,735,000 in unallocated, anticipated funds, if voters in November approve a referendum calling for a 15-year extension of the county’s penny sales tax program.
The third iteration of that program — Surtax III — will expire on Dec. 31, 2024. Therefore, staff recommended to the board members last year that if they put the Surtax IV question on the November 2022 General Election ballot, and voters opposed it, the commission would have one more opportunity to implement Surtax IV through a 2024 referendum.
“The tax is applied to the first $5,000 of any single taxable item at the time of purchase,” a county slide has explained. The first iteration of the surtax program won voter approval in June 1989.
On March 8, the board members are scheduled to approve the final list of county Surtax IV projects for inclusion in an ordinance, in preparation for the November vote. That day, they also are set to vote formally on authorizing staff to advertise a March 29 public hearing on the referendum.
Additionally, on Feb. 23, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the language in a second question for the November General Election ballot. That would allow the county to issue up to $400 million in bonds to accelerate projects on the Surtax IV list, if both the extension of the Surtax program and the bond question win voter approval. An ordinance reflecting that vote also will be the focus of the March 8 Surtax IV discussion.
On Feb. 8, when they last discussed Surtax issues, they voted 3-2 on a bonding ballot question composed by staff. However, Chair Alan Maio left open the opportunity for any commissioner to work with staff after the fact to revise the language further, if a board member wished to do so.
Both Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler voiced worries that day that the bond question was not clear enough to win voter support.
Tweaking the plans for the Surtax IV money
County staff has projected that about $908.2 million of an estimated $2 billion in Surtax IV revenue would be raised from 2025 through 2039, if voters agree to the renewal of the program. Automatically, 25% of the proceeds go to the Sarasota County School District. The remainder is divided among the county and the municipalities, based on population.
A county ordinance calls for more than 50% of the funding the county receives to go toward transportation projects. On Feb. 23, Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho noted that, based on the decisions the board already had made, the allocation to transportation initiatives would use 51.2% of the county’s Surtax IV revenue.
During a two-hour workshop on Feb. 8, the commissioners allocated an extra $8.5 million to various projects, out of $17 million that staff had not assigned to any department requests.
On Feb. 23, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked for $500,000 to be set aside for a new facility sought by the University of Florida/Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension and Sustainability program in the county. That money could be used for the design, he pointed out, so the project would be “shovel-ready” if the rest of the funds could be secured through other means.
The project was included on a “wish list” that department directors had provided the commissioners, in the event the Surtax IV program generated more revenue than staff has estimated.
The description on that list calls for construction of a UF/IFAS “‘annex’ facility and reconfiguration of the existing facility to add office space and conference and training rooms, as well as a greenhouse.”
On Feb. 8, Cutsinger won his colleagues’ support for $250,000 for a greenhouse for the Master Gardeners program associated with UF/IFAS, as well as creation of a manual on stormwater pond management.
At first, Commissioner Nancy Detert objected to Cutsinger’s Feb. 23 proposal. “I’d like to spend money on things people can really see quicker,” she said.
However, Chair Alan Maio emphasized the fact that the funding “gets us closer to shovel ready …”
Detert then agreed to support the request, noting that UF/IFAS staff members “do … wonderful work,” and county residents are still learning about what the Extension service has to offer.
Still, she said, “What I think is important is to fund what the public has identified strongly,” such as the need for more money for library books. In response to that request, on Feb. 8, Detert called for $1 million to be appropriated out of the Surtax IV money for that purpose.
Then, on Feb. 23, looking at that list of publicly submitted requests, which staff also had provided for the board discussion earlier this month, Detert asked about the line item calling for converting 53 acres of publicly owned land, “currently mostly parking lot, into a green, environmentally sustainable public park.”
“Where is that?” she asked Botelho.
Another staff member reminded Botelho that the funds were sought for The Bay Park, which will be built on 53 acres that the City of Sarasota owns on the waterfront in downtown Sarasota.
“We’ve already invested to the tune of about $100 million on that,” Detert responded.
Both the City and County commissions agreed in late 2020 to the establishment of a tax-increment financing district (TIF) for The Bay Park. That district encompasses not only the 53 acres but also surrounding properties. Every year that the property values rise in that district, each local government will set aside the money that they would have received, based on their millage rates, in property tax revenue from owners of the district parcels. All of that money — close to $200 million over the 30-year life of the TIF — will go toward park amenities.
After Detert made her remark about the commission’s funding for The Bay Park, Chair Maio added, “That was very cleverly worded by somebody.”
Maio’s former business partner in leadership of the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in Sarasota, Bill Waddill, is the chief implementation officer for the Bay Park Conservancy. That nonprofit is working with city staff on formal plans for development of the park.
Maio resigned from Kimley-Horn before beginning his first campaign for the commission, in 2014.
Taking a look himself at the public proposals for Surtax IV funding, Maio then noted a call for bike lanes on Proctor Road from Cattlemen Road to Clark Road.
Portions of Proctor already have bike lanes, he said, adding, “We don’t build roads anymore without a bike lane.” However, he added, the item on the list referenced what staff calls “gap roads,” which do not have all of the features of more modern construction, including bike lanes.
The project description pointed out that, west of Interstate 75, Proctor “either has or will have bicycle lanes and sidewalks to connect to the Legacy Trail Extension. Proctor Road East of [I-75] has deep ditches and NO shoulder, NO bike lanes, and only sections of sidewalks.”
Then Maio noted that county departments already are planning to address some of the projects on the list of projects proposed by the public.
As that part of the discussion wound down, Detert reiterated a point that both she and Commissioner Cutsinger made on Feb. 8: the desire to see a portion of the Surtax IV money unallocated, so it could be used “for things that come up,” as Detert put it.
“We could be headed for some tough times,” she told her colleagues, given the rise of inflation in recent months.
When Maio asked whether anyone else on the board had a request, Commissioner Christian Ziegler then called for $250,000 to be set aside for construction of a “destination playground.” That was on the list of “extras” provided by county department directors, if more Surtax IV revenue is raised than anticipated.
The description of that project said, “Construction of a new destination playground that is intended to be age-friendly and inclusive, including sections or components that are fully accessible.” The listing noted the anticipation that restrooms, a parking area, shade structures, site furnishings “and a variety of landscaping improvements” would be other facets of the initiative.
Creation of a destination playground was included in the commission’s 2021 Strategic Plan.
On June 8, 2021, the board members agreed for staff to proceed with planning for such a facility on 17th Street in Sarasota, as part of a regional park for North County.
The Sarasota City Commission is interested in that project as well, Ziegler pointed out on Feb. 23. Having the playground included on the county’s Surtax IV project list, he said, “would help when we’re advertising [the November referendum]. “Plus,” he added, “Sen. [Joe] Gruters [of Sarasota] has made it very clear that he likes that project.” If the county committed money to it, Ziegler continued, that might give Gruters leverage to win state funding.
When Maio asked how much Ziegler wished to include in the final county list for that undertaking, Ziegler suggested $250,000.
County Administrator Jonathan Lewis also clarified that the funds would go toward a county project, “which might end up being a partnership with the city.”
Then Detert advocated again for leaving the remaining Surtax IV funds unallocated.
She made a motion to approve the list as of that afternoon, with the board members to review it and cast a final vote on it on March 8.
Commissioner Cutsinger seconded the motion, and it passed 5-0.Tin
The second ballot question
Following the discussion about additional projects, Deputy County Administrator Botelho showed the commissioners a revised version of the second ballot question for November, regarding the issuance of bonds to get Surtax IV projects underway more quickly.
Commissioner Moran explained that he had met with administrative staff and that he had worked with Deputy County Attorney Karl Senkow on revising the language presented to the board in early February.
One major change was in the first sentence. As modified from Feb. 8, it emphasized that the goal in issuing the bonds would be “[t]o reduce inflation risk and accelerate projects funded by one-cent sales tax proceeds,” with the Surtax IV revenue to cover the total principal for the bonds.
Detert countered that she felt it was unnecessary to include the language about inflation.
Yet, Commissioner Cutsinger pointed out, “The hot button issue in our community and, really, our country right now is inflation …” Moreover, he noted, this is “a time of very favorable, low interest rates.”
That revised first line, Cutsinger continued, “catches your attention. … I think that probably does help make it even more clear [about the reason for issuing bonds].”
Maio offered his support for it, as well.
When Moran made a motion calling for the use of the revised language, as shown that afternoon, Maio seconded it.
“This is the taxpayers giving us authorization [to issue bonds] and avoid this inflation,” Moran emphasized.
Finally, Detert concurred with the changes. Therefore, that motion passed 5-0, as well.