Sir Winston Churchill once said: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
We may be able to top that. It’s a June 4 discussion among Sarasota County and Sarasota city commissioners about whether and how much taxpayer money Sarasota County should redistribute to the city’s Newtown area.
When you read the exchanges that follow, you’ll see that City Commissioner Fredd Atkins thinks Sarasota County owes reparations to Newtown — although he didn’t use that term.
A little background: The county a few years ago allowed the city to extend the downtown Community Redevelopment Area to include Newtown — meaning incremental increases in property values and property taxes would be funneled directly into Newtown and other downtown areas and not distributed city or countywide. The County Commission did this in spite of an earlier position it held against CRAs. The county maintains that it has a Community Reinvestment Trust, from which it will write one check to help an area in need instead of taking a perpetual tax from everyone in the county to pay for one particular area.
What you are about to read illustrates one of the terrible perils of taxation — how government authorities vote to take your wealth and then decide how to redistribute it. It’s never “fair.”
Mayor Richard Clapp
Is there a way to find other funding to help the Newtown CRA area to show the growth we’d like to have at a different pace than we currently have?
City Manager Robert Bartolotta
Newtown is the city’s No. 1 priority. We feel the potential for redevelopment is high.
County Comm. Carolyn Mason
I support the city’s request, but I struggle with the economy. Is today the time to say yea or nay for my commission? And I say that because I’m ever mindful of where we are with this economy. We don’t know yet.
Is nine months to a year a better time for us to say yea or nay? For me to get support from my colleagues, because I can’t make a decision on my own, or by myself. In a little more time we may know more about where this economy is going to go, and it is also going to give the Newtown CRA board and community to develop a good plan on what to do with the dollars once they start flowing.
City Com. Fredd Atkins
The esteemed county commissioner from my district — I’m not sure what you just said. I’m not sure I understand it at all. The amazing part about all this is we don’t’ have to talk about the neglect of the north of the city of Sarasota, but now the opportunity. The greatest economic opportunity is in the north part of the city of Sarasota.
My greatest struggle is where I’m going to live when this thing starts happening there because I’ve got a fear I may be run out of Newtown.
This is the time to move forward. I’m really not sure what we are waiting on anymore. The county can say now is a good idea to invest in a part of the county that has been neglected more than any other part of the county. The county can take a chance and look at this and say, ‘You know, we can stimulate the economy of the city of Sarasota and Sarasota County by investing in the community that has been the most neglected by Sarasota County throughout the years.
County Com. Jon Thaxton
The characterization of neglect is inappropriate. It was my belief or at least my hope that when the county extended the boundaries of the CRA that at least a good portion of that money would be invested in Newtown. The county collected $11 million. The other part of the debate is we have in Sarasota County other Newtown-like areas.
Osprey, Laurel, Nokomis.
Osprey, Laurel and Nokomis?
It’s very much an area in need. It’s felt the neglect of county government. They have very few facilities. Their resources are very limited. There are other areas in south county. My emphasis is very much diluted than it would be as a city commissioner.
Before I would extend resourses to those in the north county, I would distribute that money to other areas.
We’ve told Osprey, Laurel, Nokomis we’re not going to do it. We’ve told North Port we’re not going to do it.
It’s difficult for the county to assume that burden.
City Com. Suzanne Atwell
I see both sides. We are so poised in the city. This is our No. 1 issue. We’re poised in so many ways. We have a new director of Newtown.
We’re struggling with what is the collective commitment from the county. I want to see if we all have the desire to do this. We will have to deal in the details and some of the minutia, but what I’m looking for is the desire to work on this. We’re working hard on this. What do we have to do to make this happen. What numbers do we have to crunch?
County Com. Shannon Staub
Everybody in South County, Laurel, Nokomis, Englewood, North Port all say we’ve been the stepchild of the county for years. The folks down there are expecting something from us. We expanded the Newtown CRA when we said we we’re not doing CRAs anymore and I had to explain that a lot.
County Com. Nora Patterson
I have a problem with the principles of CRAs. It’s a shell game, and what it ends up being is a long-term commitment of a particular area of a revenue source that would otherwise be used in the entire county.
City Com. Kelly Kirschner
I’m scratching my head here. I think all of us have greatly benefited from CRAs. All property values have benefited extremely. The Alinari, the Renaissance right next to it. I’d love to see in the past 10 years the increment of valuation in Newtown.
There’s a reason Atkins said we’ve invested so much time in Newtown. We recognize the success of Newtown helps in the overall prosperity in Sarasota.
The blight in Newtown has lasted for 30 years and has not improved much. With all due respect to Chair Thaxton, I’d love to look at the data of Laurel.
What I don’t want to get into is pitting one area against another. We are throwing money at them, but maybe we’re doing it the wrong way. Maybe we have to do it from the inside. Without any redevelopment, the base stays the same. If the increment is used to expand the base and increase the base, it’s an investment.
We’re going to get the money back, if we invest in it. The economics will more than pay for itself.
We’ve already put a lot of money into Newtown.
Commissioner Patterson and I sat on the commission together when these started coming down the pike.
The amazing part about this process is that we are so grateful for the county to contribute to the greater Newtown area for the past two or three years.
I’ve been living in Newtown for 51 years now. And we didn’t have a lot of contributions those first 45 I lived in Newtown, so there’s some catching up the county has to do.
You know we sit around here and talk about $20 million in the next 20 years going to Newtown from the county’s fund. The reality is that Newtown has been there for over 80 years. It took the county 25 years to get CDBG funds because they didn’t want to administer the funds. This county didn’t want to appreciate the fact that poor people lived here.
So, here we are talking about poor people vs. poor people in Sarasota county. The reality is Sarasota County could have stepped to the plate a long time ago, so we thank you all for coming in the last three years. But the reality is we are in pain. Laurel, Nokomis, Englewood, we’re all in pain, and you all need to give us the opportunity to improve our conditions.
Well, since we’re talking about history. We didn’t want to take money from other parts of the county and put them toward one area, so we created the Community Reinvestment Trust, where we write a check for the project. And it allowed anyone to come forward. We’ve awarded two or three projects.
I’ve been here 12 years, and when I hear that the county has only done things the past couple years that we’ve helped the northern part of the county, it makes me sad to hear that, because I don’t see it that way.
In the next three to five years, we’ll be looking at about $29 million. I don’t know that I can find another community in the county that we’ve committed that kind of money.
We have done so many things that the city has asked that others have not asked or we haven’t been able to do. We’re not trying to pit poor people against poor people. We’re just trying to be equitable in the county. I hope we change the tone of this meeting.
It seems like there is a philosophical issue about CRAs, and then there’s the financial question about how to redevelop Newtown. Everybody’s got a view on if CRAs work or not. I’m in favor of them.
County Com. Joe Barbetta
Will the increment produce more in the current and future? We’ll probably get paid back in the first year or two. We’ll have a more vibrant community. We have to be careful we’re not gentrifying the area. I think we need to look at it in Laurel and look at it in Nokomis.
I would agree with Commissioner Barbetta. I would like to say to our colleagues who don’t agree with us: Let’s not close the door on this issue.
I think the county’s contribution would by symbolic. It says we are with you. The city’s top priority is Newtown, and I’d like to see the county say the same thing.
City editor Robin Roy contributed to this report.