Sarasota city voters, this is your time.Next Tuesday’s City Commission election is a historical tipping point.
The outcome of this election will determine whether the city remains mired in an economically stagnant pool, as it has for the past seven years, or whether it energizes itself for a more promising and prosperous economic future.
We hope — and want to believe — the vast majority of Sarasotans would prefer promise and prosperity over stagnancy and strife.
The reality is this: In spite of the improving economy over the past few months (finally, we’ve emerged from the devastating recession), past policies and decisions of the sitting commission and previous commissions have cast a pall over City Hall and the image of the city.
Fresh on residents’ minds is last week’s Walmart decision, rejecting the company’s application to build a new store at Ringling and Lime. There are the seemingly never-ending controversies over homeless and vagrants. There was the on-again, off-again fiasco with parking meters and the city parking department. The Palm Avenue garage and its long-vacant storefronts. Road and roundabout construction projects that nearly destroyed Burns Court businesses. Constant obstacles to redevelopment of North Trail. And we could provide a long list of distracting controversies inside City Hall that consumed far too much time and made City Hall look dysfunctional.
And, of course, let’s not forget the most pressing issue of all, as some of the candidates call it: the elephant in the room: the city’s finances.
Here’s a snapshot, as of the most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report for 2011:
• Total long-term debt (bonds, stadium, parking garages, etc.): $158,749,554
• Unfunded pension liabilities: $142,811,900
• Net assets (assets minus liabilities, or net worth): $403,822,001.
• Total debt (long-term debt + unfunded liabilities) / net assets: 74.6%
• Long-term debt / net assets: 39%
• Projected general fund shortfall by 2022 (if the city stays on its current path): $20 million.
The conclusion is simple: The city of Sarasota cannot stay on the same path.
Fortunately, all six of this year’s City Commission candidates recognize this. They recognize the city will need more money, more tax revenues, to dig out of the fiscal hole into which it has fallen.
Loathe as they are to admit it, they know property-tax increases are inevitable. Some believe the city still can tighten some expense areas. All know the city’s police pension system needs to be converted from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution system, similar to those in the private sector, and made more affordable. And, thankfully, they all told us in interviews the best way out of the city’s fiscal hole is to grow economically. How to make that happen is another matter; on this they differ in degrees and methodology.
After evaluating the candidates’ positions on the crucial issues and their strengths and weaknesses; sizing up who they are, what they’ve accomplished professionally and in the community; and envisioning how they might exhibit the leadership required of a city commissioner, we offer the following observations and recommendations.
We’re recommending four candidates for the two at-large seats — one held by incumbent Mayor Suzanne Atwell, the other by outgoing Commissioner Terry Turner.
For Sarasota city voters, this is a good year. Voters have a bounty of good, qualified candidates. In fact, it’s difficult to select just two.
So, although this may be perceived as a cop-out, we’re recommending four candidates for the two at-large commission seats. Any two of these four candidates, we believe, would provide the leadership to move the city forward. Herewith, our recommendations, in alphabetical order:
Suzanne Atwell — None of the candidates is more outwardly enthusiastic and passionate about wanting the city of Sarasota to be much more and better than it is than is incumbent Mayor Atwell.
In that vein, it’s noteworthy that her commission peers selected her twice to serve as the city’s mayor, albeit mostly a ceremonial position. She is the city’s public face, and she has risen to be an enthusiastic, highly visible ambassador and empathetic listener to citizens’ concerns. She takes action.
Atwell likewise has matured as a leader (though she could run a tighter meeting) and has shaped a vision for the city that all citizens could and should embrace. To that end, Atwell increasingly understands the importance of economic growth.
She wants to bring neighborhood and business leaders together. “We have to prosper together,” she says. And City Hall needs to change. “We need a can-do attitude at City Hall. We need a welcome mat for business.”
In the end, all elections are referenda on the performance of the incumbents. To be sure, there are some Atwell votes we wish she would have switched. But, as of late, Atwell has shown an increasing maturity in her leadership and a positive, growing vision for the city. Given four more years, we believe Atwell would be an effective voice to move the city into a new future.
Richard Dorfman — He is not the ogre, dogmatist or bombastic con man that his detractors paint him to be.
If every Sarasotan had the opportunity to sit one-on-one with Dorfman, he would find that, of all of the non-incumbent candidates, Dorfman has the most thorough command of the issues — and their politics. More important, he has a rational, measured view of how these issues must be addressed. He knows you cannot slash and burn.
Yes, Dorfman is a businessman. He, too, believes economic growth is the most important path out of the city’s fiscal woes. But his position is not growth, growth, growth and neighborhoods be damned. When you say “higher densities,” Dorfman says: “Where it makes sense.”
We like this, too: “If you believe Sarasota has its own fiscal cliff [Say we: it does], then pick a candidate who has experience. I’ve been a professional negotiator for 25 years. I’m a business development person. I’ve been held accountable. I’ve been responsible for delivering shareholder value. The citizens of Sarasota would be my shareholders.”
Although neighborhood association leaders are working feverishly to portray Dorfman as the devil incarnate, here’s what Sarasotans would get if he were to be elected: a pragmatic businessman, someone focused on solving problems in a common-sense way and who looks for opportunities to benefit his customers and stockholders. A businessman — straightforward and to the point. That would be good for the City Commission.
We embrace Dorfman’s approach and his vision for the city.
Linda Holland — Balanced. Fiscally sound. Common sense. Integrity. Self-described city government junkie.
These are all characteristics universally ascribed to Holland, a 33-year community-minded Sarasota business owner, volunteer and neighborhood leader (Gillespie Park).
As owner and landlord of more than 50 residential properties in Sarasota, mostly north of Fruitville, Holland has seen it all — crime, city bureaucracy, neighborhood strife, all sides of people and endless City Commission meetings. She is well versed and prepared for what will confront the next commission.
And one of the issues that is uppermost on her list is the constant conflict between Sarasota’s neighborhoods and business. Holland says City Commission decision making needs to balance the two.
“I don’t have this obstructionist view and think that all developers are crooks and nasty people,” says Holland, a longtime Gillespie Park neighborhood advocate. “Nor will I bend over backward for them. I see myself as a more inclusive voice.”
Here’s what is attractive about Holland: With her 33 years in Sarasota, she would bring vast wisdom — that of a fiscally sound business owner and of a neighborhood activist/leader. As she put it, “You have to have people who can understand both sides of things.”
Kelvin Lumpkin — Here’s what we like about Lumpkin: At age 39, the youngest of the candidates, he represents a bridge to the future. A youthful voice and leader who is passionate about wanting to see the city of Sarasota reach its full economic and livable potential.
The role of city government, Lumpkin says, “is to protect its citizens and enhance its quality of life. Help the collective prosperity of the city.”
Everything, Lumpkin says, is interconnected and affects everything else. Homelessness and vagrancy — they adversely affect the city’s economy. Crime in Newtown — it adversely affects all of the city’s quality of life. Economic growth downtown — it helps lift all boats.
Lumpkin is not like other City Commission predecessors from North Sarasota. He doesn’t expect handouts.
“I want to see people get jobs,” he says. He understands the power of the free-enterprise system verses the destructiveness of government intervention.
Sarasota should be “attractive to investment,” Lumpkin told us. “Invite investment that makes our neighborhoods more livable. Attitudes need to change on both sides. I would want the rest of the world to see us as open for business.”
As a church pastor, Lumpkin knows the importance of listening to the voices of everyone. Like Holland, he would bring balanced decision making to the commission.
Altogether, any two of these four candidates have the ability to provide the tipping point on the Sarasota City Commission; to provide the leadership needed for the city to escape its living-in-the-past, anti-business stagnation; to make the tough and balanced decisions necessary to move the city forward.
With the right commissioners, Sarasota can be far greater than it is.