When Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason swung her gavel to kick off Friday's Sarasota County financial planning special workshop, she was ringing the bell on another bout of budget talks that just might go the distance.
The Sarasota Board of County Commissioners (BCC) was split over one fundamental question: Should Sarasota County tap into its reserve funds today to expand tomorrow's economic base, or should the board leave those funds untouched to preserve the financial safety nets that allowed Sarasota County to successfully weather the Great Recession?
County Commissioner Joe Barbetta pushed for using reserve funds like the economic uncertainty fund to invest in projects that will bring high rates of economic return to the area and expand the tax base.
"We're not spending wildly," Barbetta said. "There is a lot of money in this county, and the economic uncertainty fund is being used exactly for what it was intended. If we don't use that money, we might as well give it back to the taxpayers."
"I'm a conservative, but I'm also a businessman," Barbetta added. "It's not good business if you're tying up $4-5 million that's just sitting there, only getting 1-2% rate of return, when in reality it could be doing a lot more elsewhere."
County Commissioner Christine Robinson disagreed.
"We can't turn our head to that model in 2016; we can't ignore that red number," Robinson said in reference to a projected budget deficit for fiscal year 2016 based on current spending levels and projected area growth. "We're spending more than we're taking in, and not in a strategic way. Businesses and individuals don't plan on money they're not sure they're going to get, and that's what we're doing."
"I disagree completely with the idea that we haven't done this with careful planning," County Commissioner Nora Patterson said in response to Robinson's remarks. Patterson shared Barbetta's opinion about the need to expand the county's economic base, but had reservations about the level of spending.
"I think we're just fine, but we have to be very cautious," Patterson said. "We can't say yes to everything in the name of economic development."
The schism over what to do with reserve funds had as much to do with uncertain economic projections as it did with differences of opinion.
Steve Botelho, Sarasota County chief financial planning officer, presented the BCC with a five-year general fund model comprising four different projections based on differing estimates of taxable value growth, major revenues, expenditures and reserve fund spending. Botelho said the goal of all the scenarios was to keep any financial shortfalls at least two years out.
"These are only estimates about new growth and the improving economy," Botelho said. "There are so many variables and what-ifs; we know things will change."
The fiscal year 2014 budget allotted $243 million for the general fund — approximately a 7% jump from 2013. The BCC controls more than $114 million, about 47%, of the general fund.
County Commissioner Charles Hines called Friday's sometimes-testy discussion a "good, positive debate." There was, however, one particularly tense moment between Robinson and County Administrator Randall Reid.
"What you said was not appropriate," Robinson said in response to Reid using the word "rhetoric" to describe portions of Friday's budget discussion. "This is a healthy discussion that needs to be had. You labeling it as rhetoric is not helpful or constructive."
Reid backed off the remark, but stood firm on his defense against an earlier assertion by some commissioners that he and his staff had not provided enough information to anticipate fluxes in the budget.
"The priorities in the budget need to be those of the board," Reid said in his opening remarks. "We need to meet the needs of the county without putting ourselves in financial jeopardy."
The fiscal year 2014 budget begins Oct.1 this year.
The next budget adoption public hearing is scheduled for 5:30 p.m., Sept. 9, at the Sarasota County Administration Building, 1660 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota.
Residents can call 861-5000 for more information.
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