The Florida House’s transparency project lets Floridians see how their local governments compare to their peers.
Recently, the Florida House of Representatives launched the Taxpayer Accountability & Transparency Project with a website — FloridaTaxpayers.com — that ranks and grades Florida’s cities and counties based on spending, crime and education data.
House Speaker José Oliva said the website “gives residents a useful tool to help them make educated judgments and hold their elected officials accountable.”
The project grew out of a legislative effort led by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, who argued that Floridians should be able to see how their city and county compare to others statewide. The bill passed the House in March but died in the Senate. House leadership decided to pursue the project on its own.
Cities and counties are graded and ranked based on six-year averages of per-capita spending and debt, average government salaries, full-time government employees per 100,000 residents, violent and property crime, local school grades from the annual Florida School Accountability Reports and graduation rates.
The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties opposed the project, arguing that budget, crime and education data are too simplistic and can give people a skewed view of how well a city or county is doing.
Of course, they are right, but having no data or comparison at all also skews people’s perspective of how well a city or county is doing.
To their credit, FloridaTaxpayers.com provides all the raw data, so anyone can do an examination. In that vein, we analyzed what the data say about Longboat Key and also presented the grades and rankings for Sarasota and Manatee counties.
Notice that all the jurisdictions are compared only to the other jurisdictions of similar size statewide.
For context, we also are presenting how Longboat Key compares to the highest and lowest jurisdictions, along with how Longboat compares to its neighboring municipalities on Anna Maria Island.
Here is how Longboat Key stacks up:
Spending: Not surprising, Longboat ranked near the bottom as a high spender in spending per resident, an indication of the town’s citizens willingness to spend a lot on public safety.
Longboat’s average spending per resident over the six-year period was $8,353, well above the average for small cities statewide. The average was $6,330.
(Longboat Key’s 2019 population was 7,403.)
The highest spending city per resident is Bay Lake, which is an anomaly. Bay Lake is the incorporated city inside Walt Disney World. It has a population of 15 and has spent $649,230 per resident over the past six years.
Reddick, population 558 and near Ocala, appears to be the most frugal small city in Florida. Ranked No. 1, it spent $316 per resident.
Here’s the spending per capita in Longboat’s neighboring barrier island cities — listed with population, grade, ranking and spending:
- Anna Maria: 1,623; D; No. 224; $3,753 per resident
- Bradenton Beach: 1,202; C; No. 136; $1,984 per resident
- Holmes Beach: 3,927; C; No. 178; $1,931 per resident
Debt: Longboat’s debt per resident has been $3,407. Like spending, the town’s low ranking reflects the voters’ willingness to continue issuing bonds to finance beach renourishment and other projects.
The average debt burden for Florida’s small cities is $2,395.
The highest debt burden per resident among Florida’s small cities is in Medley in Miami-Dade County, a town of 6 square miles and population of 847. It’s debt per resident: $13,525.
The lowest debt burden has been in Beverly Beach in Flagler County on the East Coast, population 372. Debt per resident: $114.
The grades, rankings and debt per resident of Longboat Key’s neighbors are:
- Anna Maria: B; No. 86; $1,301
- Bradenton Beach: C; No. 127; $17
- Holmes Beach: B; No. 119; $27
Government size: This category measures how much a jurisdiction spends on its city staff, the percentage of the budget devoted to payroll and the number of full-time employees per 100,000 residents.
Longboat Key’s average salary for town staff came in at $74,452, and the percentage of its budget devoted to salaries was 17%.
Once again, Longboat’s average salary far exceeds the average for all small cities — $48,374. The average for salaries as a percentage of a city’s budget is 33%.
Longboat’s higher salaries again reflect the Town Commission’s long-standing practice of being among the higher-paying cities in Florida, with the expectation that will help it attract a quality work force.
The city with the lowest average salary and the No. 1 ranking is Reddick, the small town in Marion County. Its average salary: $12,000.
Flagler Beach ranked last in average salary. That oceanfront town of 4,725 pays an average of $91,145 to its employees.
The grades, rankings, salaries and percentage of the budget for Longboat’s neighbors:
- Anna Maria: B; No. 92; $51,16; 17%
- Bradenton Beach: D; No. 235; $60,228; 78%
- Holmes Beach: D; No. 207; $58,875; 45%
Crime: This has long been an area in which Longboat Key has excelled — its low crime rate.
In fact, you can infer there is a relation between the town’s spending and employee salaries and the town’s crime rate. Longboat taxpayers put a premium on public safety.
Altogether, Longboat’s grades and rankings are not likely to surprise Longboat taxpayers. When people choose to live on Longboat Key, presumably they are aware town government is not going to be a low-cost operation that skimps on government services. Everyone knows Longboat is an affluent barrier island.
And even though the grades and rankings of the Taxpayer Accountability & Transparency Project don’t reveal choices that local governments make, the information nevertheless gives taxpayers a useful comparison.
Dr. Adrian Moore is vice president at Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota.