The final vote will happen in August, but the commission hopes to rebuild the county's reserves.
In an effort to build up the county’s emergency reserves while still maintaining the same service level, the County Commission heard a plan to increase the millage rate for all residents by 0.1% and to levy a 5% tax on public services for some residents, depending on where they live.
At the first day of budget workshops on June 20, County Administrator Thomas Harmer proposed a budget for fiscal year 2018, and emphasized the commission’s wish to maintain the current level of services provided, while also building up the county’s savings for emergencies like a natural disaster or a recession.
“I strongly recommend we rebuild our reserves."
The tax on public services, including electricity, water, natural gas and liquid petroleum, will only affect residents who live in unincorporated areas of the county. Residents within the city of Sarasota already pay a 10% tax on these utilities, which is the legal maximum.
According to the county administrator’s presentation, this tax would raise $10.8 million every year it was in effect.
Increasing the millage rate by 0.1% would generate $5.2 million in fiscal year 2018. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, this would amount to $20 a year, or $1.67 a month.
“We either cut services, cut projects, or find some other revenue source,” said Commissioner Hines, who said he hadn’t yet made up his mind on how he would vote. Hines wanted taxpayers to know the funding had to come from somewhere other than the county’s reserves.
“If we eat up all our reserves, we’re going to put ourselves in a very bad position,” said Vice Chair Nancy Detert. “And then the public is going to say, ‘Why didn’t you plan for this?’”
The reserves have been dwindling in past years, as Sarasota County has bragged one of the lowest millage rates in the state. In order to compensate for that revenue, the county has been dipping into its reserves to fund projects and departments, which isn't a sustainable model.
“We knew this has been coming, this is no surprise,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “We’ve been working toward this for three or four years, and we’re here.”
At the end of fiscal year 2016, the county had just $57 million in reserves. With the new tax plan, Harmer projected the fund will have $91 million at the end of fiscal year 2023.
If the proposed taxes are approved by the County Commission, there will no longer be a shortfall of funding between revenue and expenses. However, if no taxes are levied and the county continues spending as it has in recent years, by fiscal year 2019, the budget will be $14 million short to cover expenditures.
“I strongly recommend we rebuild our reserves,” Harmer said.
In the coming weeks and months, the budget will continue to be finessed and is subject to change. After one or two more workshops the week of June 19, the final budget workshop will take place Aug. 21. Public hearings are set for Sept. 11 and 26, and the commission will vote to adopt the final budget Sept. 26.