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East County Wednesday, Jun. 16, 2010 11 years ago

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Ranch incorporation

by: Tom Thomaides

Dear Editor:

Two years ago, the Lakewood Ranch Civic Action Forum initiated a study to determine if it would be financially feasible for Lakewood Ranch to incorporate and become a city. We also wanted to address some other fundamental questions, including “Is Lakewood Ranch big enough to be a viable city?” and “What would be the potential benefits of incorporation for both residents and local business?”

Below is a summary of what we have learned.

Financially feasible
Based on the study performed by Fishkind and Associates, incorporation is both financially feasible today, and more importantly, sustainable going forward. This is possible without adding any new taxes for Manatee residents and without increasing existing taxes any more than they would increase in the current environment. Sarasota County residents and businesses residing within the boundary of the city potentially would see a tax increase equal to the existing Manatee County Unincorporated Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) of .6109 mills. (This MSTU does not exist today in Sarasota County). However, this increase could be at least partially offset by reductions in other existing taxes or fees.

Three major factors make this possible: The existing CDD structure and tax base that is currently in place; the Manatee County Unincorporated MSTU that currently is part of our ad valorem tax bill, and state-shared revenue for municipalities that would be available to Lakewood Ranch if we incorporate.

The CDDs provide a baseline of revenue through existing non ad valorem tax assessments of about $9.6 million per year. This includes a $7.9 million annual operations budget and $1.7 million for debt service on bond obligations. Existing ad valorem revenue from the Manatee unincorporated MSTU of about $1.6 million would come to Lakewood Ranch after incorporation.

State revenue sharing funds from the Local Government ½ Cent Sales Tax, Municipal Revenue Sharing Program and Local Option Fuel Tax also would be available after incorporation. Total estimated revenue from these sources would be $2.2 million in 2011, of which about $1.2 million would be available to the general fund of the city and $1 million would be targeted specifically for road maintenance.

Using a conservative approach for estimating revenues and expenses, a net surplus of 15-19% of total revenue is projected each year. This surplus, projected to total about $37 million over 10 years, could be used to build reserves, improve services, reduce taxes or support increased economic development.

City size
The existing population base of Lakewood Ranch already is larger than most cities in Florida. Of the 412 cities and towns in Florida today, the median population is 5,600, and 60% of Florida cities have 10,000 or fewer residents. Lakewood Ranch has about 15,000 residents today. Also, of the six municipalities currently located within Manatee County, only Bradenton is larger in population than existing Lakewood Ranch. Palmetto is slightly smaller, and Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach and Longboat Key all are smaller in population.

Looking to the future, the Lakewood Ranch area is expected to continue to experience significant ongoing growth and development over the next 10 to 20 years. Based on projections, Lakewood Ranch population will more than double over the next eight to 10 years.

Incorporation of Lakewood Ranch could result in significant benefits for both existing and future residents. The Lakewood Ranch City Council would have control over planning and zoning decisions. The council also would have the ability to pass and enforce local laws and ordinances tailored to the specific needs of Lakewood Ranch and would have more control over services such as code enforcement, gate access and road maintenance. Residents would have more direct influence over local elected officials who will all live in Lakewood Ranch.

Incorporation would create a unified community different from the collection of separate CDDs that exists today and (without incorporation) would continue to propagate over time. We would be able to eliminate the inefficiency of the current CDD structure, replace the existing 25 CDD Supervisors with five council members and provide a more streamlined, effective and responsive governance structure.

As a city, residents would have more control over how tax dollars are spent and over tax increases. More of our tax dollars would go directly to benefit Lakewood Ranch. Currently, only 70 cents of each dollar of revenue paid to Manatee County from Lakewood Ranch is coming back. For Sarasota County, it is only 45 cents of each dollar.

The revenue surplus projected in the study would provide the opportunity to improve levels of service, including areas such as safety, landscaping, parks, water and sewer service, and irrigation.

The growth projected over the next 10-20 years will occur regardless of incorporation. However, by becoming a city, residents would have a much more active voice in how that growth and development occurs.

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