For someone with a background in economics, Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta is surprisingly optimistic.
Economics combines statistics, mathematics, law and even psychology to make guesses about everything from what commissioners can expect a county budget to be in a decade to forecasts of how many people will cheat on their taxes.
Barbetta uses economics in his decisions as a commissioner, he told the Pelican Press during an interview. One example is his quest to pare Sarasota County government expenses through consolidation of offices and shed surplus county-owned property.
But resistance from other commissioners concerned about selling property in a depressed real-estate market and the slow crawl of legislative processes have been significant hurdles.
“We’re not in the real-estate business,” Barbetta said of the Sarasota County Commission. “You’re never going to sell at the top of the market. The idea is to get (surplus land) back on the tax rolls.”
His fellow members on the dais, such as Commissioner Nora Patterson, have criticized Barbetta’s rosy economic forecasts before. Last year he forecasted a 1% drop in taxable land value for the county in the 2013 fiscal year, which was in sharp contrast to the 7% freefall predicted by state economists. The County Commission last year settled on a 4% estimated decrease.
Sarasota County revised the estimate to a 1.17% fall in budget workshops earlier this year and settled on a 1.1% decrease July 1. Commissioner Jon Thaxton, during a June 12 budget workshop when the latter figure was given, said that “the Barbetta scenario” had come true.
Sarasota County jointly owns a parking lot with the city of Sarasota at the intersection of U.S. 301 and Main Street, which Barbetta has identified as a parcel better suited for a high-rise building. Patterson said the parking is necessary for the Clerk of the Circuit Court, which sits across the street.
The sale price could easily reflect that condition, Barbetta argued. If the two governments decided to sell the lot, which he estimates to be worth as much as $9 million, they could multiply the 70 parking spaces by $13,000 and subtract it from the sale price. With the city of Sarasota hurting fiscally, he said, the sale would be mutually beneficial.
However, County Operations Maintenance and Services Director David Cash at a May 7 budget workshop said he would need to return at a later date to update commissioners with a timeline of when a new property-inventory system is implemented. There has been no update on that system, which would make land evaluation more accurate and expedite the discovery of surplus land.
Regardless, Barbetta sparred with Patterson about the efficacy of such a program. “I want the information,” she said, “but I’m not at all convinced that there will be millions and millions of dollars’ worth of properties that are going to be simple to dispose of or even advantageous.”
But progress in Barbetta’s aim is beginning to surface: Sarasota County Emergency Operations will combine three offices into a single building after a new operations center is constructed. County Administrator Randall Reid told the Pelican Press he wants to sell a tract of land on Cattleman Road.
Barbetta said he supports Reid’s commitment to economic development after Reid submitted a preliminary budget for the 2013 fiscal year that includes $12 million to that end — double the previous year’s spending. Bringing an out-of-county company to the area helps diversify the local economy, hedging the risk of reliance on the real estate and tourism, he explained.
“I’ve always said we’re one red tide away — we’re one hurricane away — from the tourism industry shutting down,” Barbetta said. “So, if we don’t diversify, we’re going to have that lull of five or six months where tourism is going to drop off.”