Despite the need for a runoff in District 1 and an automatic recount in District 2, we congratulate new Sarasota City Commissioner Shannon Snyder — and thank all who volunteered to run for office. Political races can be grueling.
But now comes the real test for the winners and winners to be.
How are they going to lead?
Will the new commissioners’ era be marked by weak leadership that sees the city become a backwater of competing special interests that paralyze the City Commission?
Or will it be marked by a vibrant vision for a strong, growing, opportunity-laden city in which our children and others can thrive? The choice will be in the new commissioners’ hands.
There are several major issues facing the city. With at least two new members on the commission, the time is ripe to take the city in a new direction. To that end, the Sarasota Observer offers a five-point agenda for the new commission to take the city in that new direction. In future issues, we will look at prescriptions for each of these.
City Employee Pensions
This counts as both a short-term and long-term crisis, so urgent action is paramount.
For the first time, climbing pension obligations for city employees will surpass total ad valorem tax revenues in the city for the next fiscal year. Pensions for police and general employees will cost about $16.8 million, while the city is projecting to collect $14.9 million in property tax revenue for the general fund.
Clearly this is unsustainable. Outgoing Mayor Kelly Kirschner says drastic measures are needed, and City Manager Bob Bartolotta calls this “the biggest issue the commission will face this decade.”
Poorly negotiated contracts with the public unions by past administrations and commissions put the city in this bind. Police point out they do not pay Social Security taxes and so they need the pensions. That needs to change, so they have Social Security withheld and can contribute to 401(k) plans.
This is politically daunting because of the influence of the police union and the general good feelings by most of the community — the silent, large majority, we suspect — toward our police officers.
The problem is not caused by police officers, nor is the need to fix it any reflection on their service.
It is a straightforward fiduciary responsibility incumbent on the City Commission to protect taxpayers today and tomorrow from a suffocating debt burden. This can cannot be kicked down the road. Tough choices must be made to reduce the city employees’ benefits.
'Won't do' Attitude Adjustment
For too many years, City Hall has operated under a “won’t do” attitude toward business and development — the engines driving the economy. Slow permitting, ferociously bureaucratic bureaucrats, opposition to growth, anti-development regulations and the periodic hostage crisis by neighborhood associations have combined to make Sarasota the “won’t do” city.
Talk to almost any business owner in the city, whether existing, new or expanding, and you will hear stories about the time and money spent on the most petty and mundane elements of a code. Some businesses give up, and others never start. The city has an anti-business reputation that, unfortunately, is well-deserved.
The new commission can change that tone.
If the past four years of a crummy economy hold any lessons for city leaders, it is the importance of being business friendly and laying out the welcome mat. We’ve seen what Sarasota looks like when businesses can’t conduct business and people won’t come.
It’s an ugly picture for our community.
And, as an aside, the anti-growth, anti-business attitude is self-defeating, because growth and business are what drive tax revenues to city coffers. See: conditions in current recession.
Increased Development Density
This should be a no-brainer, but alas …
The city is land-locked by Sarasota County and its utility infrastructure. There is no reasonable way that the city can expand by annexation. Its borders are pretty well set.
So growth must come within the existing city limits. And that can only happen by allowing more density. Downtown may have enough density for right now but not for the future.
Limiting downtown only to two more 18-story buildings is unnecessary and arbitrary. And the areas where there can be 10-story buildings are few. These put onerous long-term limits on downtown’s ability to grow and prosper.
The density limits drive up land prices downtown, which make it more expensive and less attractive for developers. A few readers may be saying “great!” right about now. But it is not great. Obstacles to development are destructive. All organizations, businesses and cities need to grow or die. It’s a law of life:
If you are not growing, you are diminishing. Sarasota’s downtown will stagnate if it cannot grow. It has happened before in the city.
But more than downtown needs higher densities. During the boom years, a lot of growth occurred in the unincorporated parts of north county, but not much within the city. In large part, that is because the county was more attractive from a cost and friendly-to-business standpoint.
Building and living in the city already means an extra layer of taxation — all city residents pay city and county taxes. If we do not offer higher densities everywhere it makes sense — without turning the concept “makes sense” into a synonym for “never” — then the city simply cannot and will not grow.
This takes bold and visionary leadership, because the city has a vocal and organized element opposing growth. But it is necessary if city leaders want to leave a vibrant community to the next generation.
North Trail Redevelopment
There are three keys to creating an energetic, job-generating North Trail entrance to Sarasota.
First, clean up the crime and create a safe environment for businesses to be willing to risk money on the area. And the long-proven method for cleaning crime out of an area is to punish criminals. Community policing is good, but it must be in connection with a strong hand.
Drug dealers, prostitutes and the homeless check in and out of the county jail like businessmen at a Days Inn. These are the criminal elements whose presence puts up a “Do Not Enter” sign for businesses. Get them off the streets, keep them off the streets, including the Johns looking for hookers.
If the commission throws up its hands and says there is nothing that can be done, then North Trail will not be redeveloped.
Second, work to change the neighborhoods’ resistance to new development. It seems there is almost no development too small that some neighbors will oppose. This requires a persuasive touch by commissioners, definitely including those outside the district.
And, third, see No. 2 above.
Downtown Outside the Margins
The city’s biggest revenue-generator is downtown. In addition to increasing development densities mentioned above, city leaders need to think far beyond tinkering at the margins.
Lakewood Ranch and the Benderson commercial areas west of Lakewood Ranch are becoming increasing competitors with downtown. To make downtown Sarasota a competing attraction where people want to live and visit, city commissioners will need to take visionary leadership.
One idea is to revisit the 1959 Sarasota downtown plan. Almost every element of that plan was accomplished but one: Closing off a portion of Main Street — perhaps from Orange Avenue to Tamiami Trail — to create a pedestrian plaza.
Dozens of cities in Europe have done this, as well as several in the United States, and most seem to be successful.
For cities such as Vienna, the pedestrian mall has become a focal point of the city.
There are several benefits. One, it adds a unique element to Sarasota as a destination. Two, it accomplishes a more walkable downtown, a universally desired element for downtown. Three, it has international appeal because Europeans are attracted to such malls. Four, it would be of minimal cost to implement.
There are many details to work out — most importantly the length of closure — but the discussion should begin now.