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Sarasota Monday, Jul. 13, 2020 4 weeks ago

County officials project millions in general fund losses due to COVID-19

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Sarasota County leaders have proposed a budget of $323 million and a millage rate of 3.46 for fiscal year 2021.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

As Sarasota County commissioners prepare for the new fiscal year, leaders are preparing to make cuts to offset an anticipated $45 million in losses over the remaining fiscal year and fiscal year 2021 due to COVID-19.

County leaders proposed a preliminary budget of nearly $323 million for the next fiscal year, up 2.3% from $315 million in fiscal year 2020.

However, the county is expecting a decrease in revenue. Still to come this year, the county expects a $7.3 million decrease in general fund revenue due to losses from the half-cent tax and revenue sharing. County leaders anticipate a reduction of $12.8 million in other funds such as the Tourist Development Tax, gas tax and surtax. 

For fiscal year 2021, leaders expect a reduction of $9.4 million to the general fund revenue and $16 million in other funds. 

To help offset the losses, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis said the proposed 2021 budget includes $5 million in “paused spending” from the general fund. Paused general fund items include promotional activities, furniture and equipment, training and travel, and unfilled vacancies. 

“We are using our mission critical process on positions,” Lewis said. “There are some positions that we just can’t do without. They’re one-offs. If you don’t have that position, work’s not getting done. If there are places that we can pause, those are the ones we’re pausing.”

Although some areas, such as tourist development or planning and development services, could see decreases to their budgets, other areas, such as the Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota County Area Transit, could see substantial increases. 

The proposed 2021 budget would increase the sheriff’s budget by $3.2 million, or 2.6%, to $123.4 million. SCAT would see an increase of 1%, bringing its budget to $22.1 million, while tourist development could see cuts of $9.1 million, or about 31% of its proposed $28.8 million budget. 

Meanwhile, the county will postpone filling vacant positions at libraries and cut Sunday hours to help accommodate an approximate $558,000 loss in revenue. 

Commissioners on July 8 approved a “not-to-exceed” millage rate of 3.46, up 0.0269 mills or 0.78% from fiscal year 2020.

The county’s millage rate is broken into individual millages for general operating, debt service for the Environmentally Sensitive Lands Protection Program, debt service for the Legacy Trail and the county’s mosquito control district. 

Kim Radtke, the director of the Office of Financial Management, said the increase in millage is due to the voter-approved bonds for the extensions to the Legacy Trail in downtown Sarasota and North Port. In the 2018 general election, more than 70% of voters approved a referendum allowing the issuance of bonds up to $65 million for the project. 

A second set of bonds was issued in February, meaning the debt service on the project’s bonds would increase approximately 64% for the 2021 fiscal year, which Commissioner Christian Ziegler said residents approved themselves. 

“That was on the ballot, the voters approved that,” Ziegler said. “So while people will see an increase, it’s not due to our policy decision, it’s due to the public’s decision to impose that on themselves.” 

Ziegler said the county’s historically low millage rate is another factor that has in recent years attracted people to move to the county.

In recent years, the Sarasota County millage rate has been among the lowest in the state, staff noted. According to county documents, if the county had kept its millage rate at 4.57 since 2000, it would have collected an additional $896 million in property tax revenue. 

Commissioners will have a final budget workshop Aug. 31 and adopt a budget and final millage rates Sept 23. 

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