Fiscal frontrunner: Terry Turner

 

Fiscal frontrunner: Terry Turner

 

Date: May 16, 2013
by: Roger Drouin | City Editor

 
 

Terry Turner’s home desk is suspiciously clean — spotless and unadorned except for his cell phone sitting in the corner.

That’s because Turner, a former economics professor and Bank of America corporate treasurer, has acquired the habit of clearing his desk after completing a big project to start the next one “with a clean slate.”

Over the past four years, he has done so every Tuesday, after the regular City Commission meetings. But on the morning of Tuesday, May 7, Turner cleared his desk for the last time as a commissioner.

Turner, 72 plans to take some time to recharge. Maps of Italy are stacked neatly on the counter close to his desk. He’ll travel with his wife, Nancy, to Italy and Montana, and start reading the stack of books waiting for him, which includes Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel “Pathfinder.”

“I still haven’t outgrown science fiction,” Turner says.

The past four years have been busy, while Turner and fellow commissioners waded from one big issue to the next. They dealt with parking meters; redevelopment of the North Trail; and prioritized funding for $100 million in U.S. 41 roundabouts.

But, for most of his single-term tenure on the commission, Turner focused on the city’s budgetary woes, emphasizing the financial climate and trying to bring about changes, such as revamping the city’s pension system — a change estimated to save taxpayers millions, but one that angered city police officers.

“We probably never had an elected official who had the understanding of financial issues as Terry Turner did,” says Kerry Kirschner, executive director of the Argus Foundation and former mayor.

Turner says he first decided to seek a City Commission seat in 2008 because he was aware of the fiscal problems and thought he could shed some light on the financial issues. After 35% of voters elected him in an April 2009 runoff election, the city’s fiscal plight remained his greatest concern — and his main focus.

Financial focus
During Turner’s tenure, commissioners approved a change that switched general employees from a pension to a defined-contribution plan. And in July 2012, after three years of heated meetings and discussions, the city cut a cost-of-living-increase adjustment on police pensions and delayed the pension increase until a retiree reaches 65.

The changes to police officers’ pensions will save the city $132 million over 30 years, but it’s far from a complete solution to Turner’s most recent buzz phrase — “legacy cost-structure issues.”

It is unlikely any kind of reform, however, would have taken place without Turner on the commission, says Kirschner.

“It started (with the prior commission), but I think I pushed it and kept it on the front burner,” Turner says about pension reform.

Turner says the police-pension changes were necessary.

“I’m certain our police department has a pension plan more generous than most employers,” Turner says.
The fight about pensions led to a lengthy debate that angered police officers.

The pension reform fight alienated Turner from one commissioner.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo clashed with Turner throughout the lengthy debate. Caragiulo says he agreed that pension reform was necessary, but he wanted to keep promises to current police retirees.

When asked about Turner’s departure as a commissioner, Caragiulo had only one comment: “Good luck.”

Turner worked closely with former city Finance Director Chris Lyons to reduce the city’s deficit, and he credits former City Manager Robert Bartolotta — who doesn’t get credit for much after he was ousted from City Hall in January 2012 — with recognizing Lyons’ talents and promoting him to finance director.

Turner also led the push for what eventually became a charter amendment in November 2012 to prohibit the city from investing in derivatives, complex financial instruments that can reap — or lose — money quickly.

His experience as the managing director of First Union Corp.’s derivatives group in the 1990s, gave him knowledge of how problematic the complex financial instruments could be. In 2011, he says hundreds of cities lost billions on derivatives, and the city of Sarasota didn’t have the level of expertise required to use them prudently.

In 2012, 60% of voters approved the referendum prohibiting the city from investing in derivatives.

Tough decisions
After Turner was elected in 2009, the new commissioner called Kirschner. Kirschner, along with some of the Argus Foundation’s directors, had opposed Turner during the campaign, in large part because of Turner’s earlier work supporting the neighborhood activists’ efforts to prevent the expansion of Sarasota County’s Urban Service Boundary development line.

“I called Kerry Kirschner and I said, ‘I’d like to meet with you and the executive committee.’ I said, ‘I think I’m not the commissioner you expected I would be, and I would like to work with you,’” Turner says.

Although Kirschner and Turner didn’t — and still don’t — agree on every topic, over time the two found common ground.

Turner admired the Argus Foundation’s work studying how to run the Sarasota County School Board better and more efficiently. Kirschner thought Turner was right-on when he talked about the urgency of reforming the city’s pension system for both police officers and general employees.

Turner lost some community support in August 2012, when he voted on the affirmative side of a 3-2 vote of an initial contract to sell a parcel of city land at the corner of Beneva and Fruitville roads. Turner’s rationale was the land was under-used as a park. He felt a commercial project would give surrounding communities a needed economic boost.

He acknowledges that, at the time, he didn’t do a good job of explaining his vote. Recently, the public’s strong opposition of the project and millions in necessary traffic improvements now have Turner doubting if the project is a good idea.

The vote was illustrative, Turner says, of one of his flaws as a commissioner.

“One part of politics is running for office, and I was pretty good at that. That part is about explaining who you are what you want to do,” Turner says. “Another part of politics is looking at an issue and deciding what to do.”

But there is a third side to local politics — a side much different than the corporate business world, and a side with which Turner says he struggled.

“If I decide something based on analysis and data, I need to explain that to the electorate, and I admit I was not as good at that as I could have been,” Turner.

The past and the future
Turner says he’s proud of his involvement on the Sarasota-Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which helped to secure funding for some of the planned roundabouts on U.S. 41.

During his tenure, he would have like to have seen a Comprehensive Master Plan drawn for the North Trail, something the commission did not approve, instead opting for a North Trail Overlay District.

Turner says a revamped U.S. 41 will be a first step for positive redevelopment.

A master plan and a form-based code, Turner says, could make changes such as higher density in specific areas targeted for growth on the North Trail.

Turner sees potential in Barwin, the new city manager.

Looking ahead, Turner says the manager will need the commissioners’ support to succeed at a difficult post.

Turner, who had supported Chapman during the campaign, says the results of Tuesday’s at-large runoff election are a good sign. He hopes the new City Commission will give the city manager and police chief “the option to manage better.”

“It was the commission I hoped for,” Turner says.


BIOTerry Turner
From: Dayton, Ohio
Age: 72
Favorite author: Isaac Asimov
Children: Mark, 45, and Matthew, 47; four grandchildren
Nonprofit involvement: The Nature Conservancy of Florida, past board chair; Sarasota County Environmental Sensitive Land Committee; Sarasota County Committee for Economic Development; President Ronald Regan’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control

 

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