This summer, a series of votes on increasing the millage rate in Sarasota 8.5% fell into a predictable pattern: three votes for, two votes against.
After the final 3-2 vote Sept. 24, finalizing the city of Sarasota’s 2014 budget and millage rates, Commissioner Susan Chapman drew attention to that pattern. She asked Mayor Shannon Snyder and Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, the two nay votes, what they would cut in the budget to eliminate the need for the millage increase.
Neither gave specifics at the time. But given the opportunity to reflect and provide more detailed examples of what they’d target in the budget, both commissioners stuck to a more philosophical perspective.
Caragiulo said it was the commission’s job to approve the budget, not to assemble the budget. He believes that, if city staff was directed to cut from the budget, they’d find room to cut. If they didn’t feel that pressure, Caragiulo said, the budget would be excessive.
“If you convey to staff that you’re agreeable to the millage increase, you give them no incentive to cut the budget,” Caragiulo said. “You show your cards right out of the gate.”
Caragiulo pointed to money budgeted for pay increases for collective-bargaining employees as a presumptuous allocation. He also said staff seemed to find more money as necessary. New audio-visual equipment was funded without general fund money only after the commission committed an extra $211,000 toward a homeless shelter, an expenditure Caragiulo proposed and which Snyder supported.
Caragiulo said reducing costs has to be achieved via cutting personnel; there are 9.8 fewer full-time positions in this year’s budget. He acknowledged it would be hard to cut further, but thinks that should be the city’s choice before raising taxes, because property values are also increasing.
Caragiulo said he didn’t have a better alternative to the current budget process. Under that system, he wants to see commissioners ask even more of the city employees who put together the budget.
“Let’s pretend there isn’t any more money; otherwise, it’s an academic exercise,” Caragiulo said. “Unless you give them less money to play with, they’re only going to cut what they need to cut.”
Snyder said the city’s various public relations officials could be let go to save money, but he advocated for more radical changes than a few line-item cuts. He said the city should consolidate its building department and some of its law-enforcement services with the county, placing a priority on running “government lite.”
Overall, Snyder said he’d like to see a focus on maximizing the efficiency of city departments. When parking-enforcement officials are driving through the street, for example, he’d like to see them do more than check for parking violations. If there’s an overgrown tree or a pothole along their route, they should alert the proper departments, eliminating the need for some inspectors.
“It’s not so much downsizing the budget,” Snyder said. “Why isn’t there more coordination of everything?”
Snyder doesn’t believe the city will have a serious conversation about restructuring services anytime soon.
Still, he thinks it’s important to have this discussion now. For instance, he believes residents wouldn’t be satisified with the same level of service if the city’s millage rate climbed to around 6 mills, about twice the current rate of 3.1728 mills.
“I think the city of Sarasota is relevant, but, at some point, if the owners don’t see a financial return to the investment, they’ll close the business,” Snyder said.