On Sept. 26, the Sarasota Observer editorial took the Sarasota County Commission to task for increasing the annual fiscal year 2014 budget because the county “plans to expand its payroll by 116 positions.”
Of the 116 positions, the commission approved 68 during fiscal year 2013, which included the following:
• Seven in court administration (approved Nov. 14, 2012). Court employees are not employees of the commission.
• Nine in Sarasota County Area Transit (approved Jan. 29, 2013).
• Nineteen in parks and recreation (approved Feb. 8, 2013). These additions will increase the current levels of service.
• Twenty-four in field services (approved Feb. 8, 2013). This hiring replaced a portion of contractual service costs and also increased the level of service for countywide median maintenance.
• Nine in planning and development services (approved May 21, 2013). Of these nine positions, seven represent jobs cut during the economic downturn and are now being restored to meet current service demands.
The 2013-14 adopted budget contains 48 additional positions:
• Sixteen in the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff employees are not employees of the commission.
• One in court administration. Court employees are not employees of the commission.
• Eight converted contractual employees. The funding for these was already budgeted in fiscal year 2012-13.
• Sixteen Dolomite Utility employees who will become Sarasota County employees. These employees are included in the agreement for the county to purchase the utility, which provides 11,000 water and sewer connections to Sarasota County residents.
• Seven new employees within departments under the commission.
When we subtract the number of new sheriff and court administration positions, which are not controlled by the County Commission, the total number of new Sarasota County government employees in the fiscal 2013-14 adopted budget drops to 31. Of these, eight are contractual, which were budget neutral and another 16 of these were due to the acquisition of the Dolomite Utilities.
As the list above shows, the total of the new (added capacity) positions is seven.
During the recession the county cut more than 350 positions. This put a tremendous strain on existing staff. Some services to the community had to be scaled back.
We have already started to see signs of recovery: increased building permit requests; tourism numbers are up; increased requests for athletic fields; etc. More economic activity means more demand for county services and staffing levels able to deliver those services.
The 2013-14 budget includes needed capital-improvement projects and capital acquisitions, such as:
• Upgrade and update of the 800MHZ Emergency Radio Communication System, $17.9 million;
• 911/Emergency Operations Center, $15.5 million;
• Siesta Public Beach improvements, $14 million;
• Bee Ridge Road East, $17.6 million;
• Four new fire stations, $8.8 million;
• Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program, $8.4 million;
• Dolomite Utilities acquisition, $44.5 million.
The expected acquisition of Dolomite Utilities and its 16 employees will provide better services at lower cost to 11,000 county residents. The $44.5 million purchase from utility bonds will be more than offset by income, even after reducing citizens’ utility rates.
There were other increases outside of the control of the County Commission, such as a $6 million increase to the sheriff’s budget (some of which was due to increased service demands) and also a state-mandated increase to the Florida Retirement System contribution, which impacted the total Sarasota County budget by about $4 million.
The County Commission, unlike many other local governments, voted to keep the millage rate at 3.39, which is currently the third lowest in the state. We were able to do this because of prudent financial planning and consolidation of services. We are always looking for ways to continue providing the level of service the taxpayers expect, invest in projects that benefit the community and keep costs to a minimum.
Information about the Sarasota County budget can be found on our website, www.scgov.net.
Steve Botelho is Sarasota County’s chief financial planning officer.