Sarasota County leaders held a live town hall meeting on the budget June 8, in an effort to become more open and transparent.
It was called a “virtual” town hall meeting, because it was broadcast on TV and streamed live on the Internet, allowing viewers to call or e-mail questions about next year’s county budget.
Ken Jefferson, former local news anchor, hosted the program; answering taxpayers’ questions were County Commission Chairman Jon Thaxton, County Administrator Jim Ley and County Budget Director Steve Botelho.
Many of the questions centered on the possible loss of services next year, as the county struggles with lower property-tax- and sales-tax revenues — services such as libraries.
County department heads were on hand to answer such questions.
Library Director Sarabeth Kalajian said she planned to cut hours slightly, which would save some money, but would also make library hours more consistent across all county libraries and all days of the week.
Jefferson, a 23-year news veteran, then pressed for answers on libraries, asking: “Is the county getting out of the library business?” and “Is there any chance they’ll close?”
Kalajian said the county is exploring the possibility of hiring an outside contractor to run its libraries, but she doesn’t anticipate the libraries closing.
Thaxton and Ley spent a considerable amount of time explaining how little discretion they had in how tax dollars were used.
“Last year, the County Commission had total control over 17.5% of property taxes,” Thaxton said. “Most people think we have control over it all.”
A major percentage of property taxes is dedicated to things, such as the school system, and cannot be reallocated.
The county’s communications department will receive the numbers at the end of the week on how many people viewed the meeting over the Internet. Depending on what those numbers reveal, the county may organize more virtual town hall meetings in the future.
VOICE YOUR OPINION
On the night of the town hall meeting, Sarasota County debuted a new feature on its Web site — a budget calculator. The calculator allows taxpayers to prioritize various county expenses, such as parks-and-recreation activities. Once those expenses are ranked, the calculator displays the money needed to pay for that expense and how much can be saved by cutting those services. To use the calculator, go to www.scgov.net/communityconnections/survey/survey.html.