County staff working on draft of agreement with City of Sarasota for funding commitment to public park and cultural arts venues on city property
Given concerns about the financial impacts of the novel coronavirus pandemic, two Sarasota County commissioners have voiced worries about their board’s commitment to a potentially 30-year agreement with the City of Sarasota to help pay for the creation of The Bay park on about 53 acres the city owns in downtown Sarasota.
During a May 21 budget workshop, Chair Michael Moran indicated that he was even more opposed to the plan since his board last discussed it in January. Commissioner Christian Ziegler joined Moran this time in that view.
“I was kind of on the fence with it,” Ziegler said of the county’s funding pledge. “It’s a tough ask, to kind of commit ourselves to this when we’re in the middle of [the pandemic], just the perception with the public.”
Their comments followed an update presented by Deputy County Administrator and county Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho. The Office of the County Attorney is working on a draft of the interlocal agreement with the city, on the basis of the County Commission’s 4-1 vote on Jan. 15, Botelho said. The January vote called for staff to “begin engagement” with the City of Sarasota regarding a tax-increment financing (TIF) district to help pay for The Bay. The total estimated cost of the basic amenities — minus a new performing arts venue — could be close to $150 million, as noted by representatives of the nonprofit Bay Park Conservancy, which is overseeing the project.
After the Office of the County Attorney completes its draft, Botelho said on May 21, it would be shared with City Attorney Robert Fournier. Ultimately, Botelho added, the agreement would come back to the County Commission for final approval
Botelho reminded the county commissioners that, based on figures staff had calculated for the presentation to them in January, the county’s payments for the park over 30 years could add up to $98,424,996.
The proposal called for establishing 2020 as the base year for the TIF. Then, as the value of property in the TIF district grew from year to year, the county and the city would set aside for The Bay the annual increment — the amount of extra property tax revenue resulting from the increase in value. Thus, the city and county would not have access to that tax revenue except for construction of the park.
The chart Botelho showed the commissioners also had the projection of $103,968,807 in city TIF payments over the 30-year period.
Altogether, the chart said, assuming no changes in millage rates, the combined city and county TIF revenue was projected to total $202.4 million over 30 years.
The Bay has been planned as a cultural arts venue with direct access for the public to Sarasota Bay. In January, Bill Waddill, chief implementation officer for the Bay Park Conservancy, told the commissioners that the nonprofit’s leaders hoped to break ground for Phase 1 before the end of December, if the City Commission gave its final approval to the site plan in June. (The first COVID-19 case was diagnosed in Sarasota County in March, Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, has told the commissioners. That also was the first case announced in Florida.)
Waddill also pointed out in January that the Bay Park Conservancy was planning on securing from the private sector approximately 85% of the estimated $23-million to $33-million expense of Phase 1.
Reviving the CRA debate
As she has during past discussions of the new partnership with the city, Commissioner Nancy Detert expressed worries on May 21 that city staff would try to force the county into an extra payment that was unnecessary. She was referring to a years-long dispute between the City and County commissions over the timing of the final payment from the county into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment (CRA) Area Trust Fund.
“This is exactly the problem we had before,” Detert said after looking at Botelho’s slide on May 21: “Year No. 1 generates zero [revenue].” Yet, city staff did not take that into consideration with the Downtown CRA, she continued. “They called Year No. 2 Year No. 1.”
Addressing Botelho, Detert said, “I’m going to want to see real actuals, beginning and ending dates on this, before I would ever sign onto it, or we’re going to be in the same boat we were in before.” That previous experience, she added, “left a bad taste in our mouth, so we obviously have to spell out every single thing …”
Botelho assured her that the new interlocal agreement would make certain that the maximum number of payment years would be 29, if the board agreed to a 30-year TIF for The Bay. “We would have to put in very clear verbiage.”
Commissioner Alan Maio called for the interlocal agreement to end after 15 years, noting that Waddill of the Bay Park Conservancy had indicated that sufficient revenue might be secured at that point. “I can’t stress enough how exacting … exacting language [in the interlocal agreement should be], so that, for me, this thing dies in 15 years and an extension can be negotiated, if appropriate, at that time,” Maio said.
“I just am concerned about a 30-year deal again,” Maio added, concurring with Detert. “Mr. Botelho can craft language that we can see and vote on,” Maio said, to prevent another situation like the one with the Downtown CRA.
“I’m not going to rail on this,” Moran told his colleagues, “but nothing’s changed since the original burr I had in my saddle over this.”
During the January discussion, Moran emphasized that he was concerned about losing the approximately $98 million in county property tax revenue that would be diverted to The Bay. At the time, he pointed to expectations of continuing growth in the county, with future commissions needing the resources to provide the additional services that growth would necessitate.
Now, Moran continued, the pandemic has prompted significant concerns about shortfalls in county revenue for the rest of this fiscal year — which will end on Sept. 30 — and for the 2021 fiscal year. “You’re projecting out 30 years [with the TIF payments],” he said. “I just cannot support such a discussion.”
Countering the worries generated by the CRA situation, Commissioner Charles Hines emphasized of The Bay, “This is ours. This is different than the CRA and the process that that was. We wrote [city staff] a check every year and had no say over [expenditures].” This time, Hines continued, the County Commission will be involved in decisions about how the TIF revenue is spent for The Bay.
Botelho also noted that fact, reminding the board members that they would vote annually on the proposed budget for expenditure of any money from The Bay’s trust fund. The City Commission would, as well, he explained in January. “Some years,” Botelho added on May 21, “there might not be an increment.”
Additionally, the motion the county commissioners approved in January called for a five-member board to oversee the budget based on the money in the TIF trust fund for The Bay, though the City Commission had asked for seven members. In his January motion, Commissioner Maio also said that two of the board members would represent the City Commission, two would represent the County Commission and the fifth would represent the Bay Park Conservancy.
“We’re at the table, equal partners,” Hines emphasized on May 21.
Moreover, “Look how important open space was in this event,” Hines continued, referring to the pandemic. “To have this type of open space available in the urban core is so important in things that may occur in the future. Let’s don’t lose sight of the future because of these two months, these three months [during which the pandemic has been underway in the county].”
Finally, Hines also pointed out, “You know what the most valuable property in the world is. It’s next to an open space in New York City,” he added, referring to Central Park. “There’s a lot of advantages to this [proposal for The Bay] beyond a park.”
“I’m heeding what Commissioner Hines said,” Detert told her colleagues. “And I do understand the difference between a CRA and a TIF. But when there’s a dispute over counting to 30, anything could happen.”
Still, Detert said, “I support the project. … I’ve just seen deals blow up. … We don’t want that to happen.”