Sarasota’s new city commissioners knew they had some tough going ahead of them following the spending and promises of previous commissions. Residents also had a hint, electing at least two new commissioners bent on reining in spending and government scope.
But now they know just how bad it is, as City Manager Bob Bartolotta presented his budget proposal that includes the frustrating combination of increasing taxes ever so slightly, drawing down reserves and increasing spending $11 million while cutting services and personnel.
It stinks. And there is blame to share. This did not just cosmically happen. The economic downturn has not helped — although similar factors at the national level are at play. This is the direct and foreseeable result of years of poor decisions and no decisions, the infamous kicking-the-can-down-the-road syndrome.
So, the city is dealing with government employee pensions that it simply cannot afford. The budget includes additional pension contributions of nearly $3 million while eliminating 13 positions and giving no pay raises.
And there could be further problems, because budgeting officials slipped on happy glasses to adjust projections upward by nearly $2 million for new city programs.
It’s not easy times for city employees or commissioners. But all of the commissioners asked for the job and now have to make some tough calls. The first should be: no more delaying on pensions. The system has to be fixed. Now.
There are no signs that we are turning the corner economically. The signs are quite the opposite, actually.
The city could see flat or falling revenues for years to come. It is past time for city commissioners to prioritize what the city must do, and what it can do without, during a long-term period of economic stagnation.
If things get better sooner than expected, then the city is all the better off.
Here are a few suggestions.
• More than $550,000 for the operating expenses of the new Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in Newtown, even after the county kicks in $320,000 for it. It is scheduled to open this summer and was far more lavish than it should have been with lighted tennis and basketball courts, baseball and softball fields, pool, kitchen, meeting rooms and so on. Scale back operations sharply or delay opening it.
• $180,000 for Lido Pool operations (with the county kicking in $78,000.) A public swimming pool 30 yards from the Gulf of Mexico is a luxury. And all of the county money comes from city taxpayers, too; they are part of the county.
• Stop throwing money at Newtown. Money is not the solution. When people stop getting killed, robbed, mugged and drugged; when parents start acting like parents; and when businesses see enough change to risk investing in Newtown, its future will improve. Ineffective city “initiatives” just throw taxpayer money away, which is bad enough in good times but just plain foolish in these times.
• Review and stop any projects that will mean increased operating expenses in the next five years.
And one other thought: It may be time to get creative about outsourcing city services on a large scale. This is being done elsewhere in Florida and could mean significant savings. New commissioners: Eliminate former assumptions and look everywhere for savings.
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