Since 1974, the city’s spending has increased 420%. But in that time and with all that money, the City Commission repeatedly demonstrates irresponsible and dysfunctional leadership and management.
Editor’s note: The following was submitted in response to Matt Walsh’s online editorial, “Commissioners: Sign the agreement.”
We love living in Sarasota because of the great people, the arts, the weather, the plethora of dining options, etc. Like so many, we made a choice to live here. Our appreciation for the city, however, has been hampered by the many shortcomings pertaining to city management and governance.
With the goal of improving governance, we have formed BEST — Boosting Effectiveness Supporting Transparency — with the intent of making Sarasota even more enjoyable, efficient and livable.
The need for reform of the city government is compelling. In nearly a half-century (1970 to 2019), the population of Sarasota/Manatee counties has grown from about 220,000 to more than 800,000 — a 360% increase. During that same period, the city of Sarasota has grown to 57,000 residents, from 40,000 — an increase of 43%.
Some may view the relative growth rates as a positive. Others may not. Either way, there can be no disagreement that what you’ll read in the next paragraph is shockingly disappointing:
The city of Sarasota’s budget in 1974 was $10.8 million (inflation adjusted: $55 million in 2019). By 2000, it had escalated nine-fold to $96 million. And, in 2019, the budget has grown another 240% to $230 million.
So while the Sarasota city population has grown at a compound annual rate of less than 1%, the city budget has risen at an annual compound rate of almost 7%. On an inflation-adjusted basis, we are paying 420% more than in the base year. But what has the City Commission done to improve quality of life?
Consider this sampling of fiscal leadership miscues:
Lift Station 87 project — Originally estimated at $9 million and scheduled for completion in late 2012, the project now is estimated at $50 million, and the project is still not complete.
Public parks — The city found it necessary to pass a special tax district last year to maintain its public parks because, despite the enormous budget to run our city government, there simply wasn’t enough money to maintain our existing parks.
Now the city wants to spend $200 million in public and private funds on another park — this one on the bayfront.
There are already more than six city public parks less than a 10- minute drive from that destination — four are on the waterfront and seldom used. If this were to be paid with all philanthropic dollars, that would be one thing. But the establishment of a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) is a new tax on residents.
A TIF needs the approval of the county commissioners and should be rejected. However, if the city and county commissioners insist on proceeding, then issue a countywide bond that requires a vote of all county citizens.
The county has done a beautiful job at Benderson Park that is accessible and used by all residents of the county — as opposed to a new park convenient only to Sarasota city.
Bobby Jones Golf Club — The city authorized more than $1 million for a consultant to study renovating the golf course. But according to one city commissioner, the city doesn’t have the $20 million recommended to renovate the golf courses.
Police pension plan — Unlike the employees of the non-union Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, the Sarasota Police Department has a union pension plan that, when considering the $50 million unfunded liability, essentially makes the city functionally bankrupt — without raising taxes.
(By the way, the total unfunded pension liability for all city employees is $150 million; on top of this, the city owes more than $100 million in long-term debt.)
A coordinated county effort would be more cost effective.
Water — Paying for a city of Sarasota Water Department is absurd. Most area water emanates from the Peace River Water Authority, which provides water for Sarasota and Manatee counties. As city residents, we essentially pay for BOTH! The city’s water department is superfluous.
Irresponsible leadership has been protected by a self-serving, dysfunctional governing system.
It’s not all just about money. Indecision and endless debate have resulted in nothing more than wasted time of our elected officials and administrative staff. As a city, we are devoid of responsible leadership!
Here are a few topics — debated for years — where no resolution is in sight:
Homelessness — Thousands of hours have been lost debating a reasonable course of action. Yet, today, we’re no closer to solving our concerns.
Downtown parking meters — Initially, there were none. Then, after a time, it was decided to install parking meters downtown. After installation, they were removed. Now that they’ve been eliminated, guess what? They’re on their way back. Our city administrators concocted the means to pay for a parking enforcement department they hired and now have to pay for.
Permitting — The myriad regulations and inflexibility of city staff drive up the cost of permitting for businesses, homeowners and not-for-profits.
GWiz building — The back-and-forth decision, or we should say non-decision, regarding the razing of the GWiz building at the bayfront has consumed vital time that could have otherwise been spent dealing with far greater concerns.
Let’s try to be positive: What has city leadership done in 50 years to improve our quality of life?
- Are our city services improving? Ask anyone seeking a permit, and the answer is an obvious no.
- Has the traffic congestion lessened or a viable plan been put into place? No.
- Has crime dropped? Has the homeless issue been settled? No.
- Has flood control improved? Because it floods throughout the city after 20-minute rainfalls, the answer is another obvious no.
- Related to flood control, has the city done anything to create retention ponds or used pervious materials to collect water and filter water before untreated nutrients run into Sarasota Bay? Not only no, but last year the city was responsible for 900,000 gallons of untreated sewage running into Sarasota Bay.
If you agree that the answer to all or most of these questions is no, then you’ve identified mismanagement. The lack of effective, transparent leadership is the cause.
There is a solution.
A few years ago, The Argus Foundation sponsored a trip to Sarasota for Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jerry Abramson. He previously served as mayor of Louisville. Mr. Abramson related the history of disagreement between the county and the city of Louisville. By eliminating one of the layers, by unifying the county and the city into a single governing body, the taxpayers of Louisville benefited greatly — in terms of management and economics.
Louisville is not the only place where this formula has worked. A similar change was successfully instituted in Jacksonville and Nashville — cities and counties larger than Sarasota.
Sarasota County has started some consolidation, and we, the citizens of the city of Sarasota, have an opportunity to be included.
We look forward to identifying and working with other civic-minded individuals to brainstorm ways to “BEST” (Boosting Effectiveness Supporting Transparency) manage our wonderful city and bring more efficient and transparent governance, making Sarasota a better place to live, work and play.
Together, we can make our community reach its potential.
Joel Schleicher and Jonathan Mitchell are residents of the city of Sarasota.