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Sarasota Wednesday, Jul. 29, 2020 1 week ago

Parks cuts among city budget concerns

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The commission set a preliminary millage rate Tuesday, but staff’s proposed budget could be subject to further revisions before final adoption.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Will the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic result in reduced hours and closures at city recreational facilities in 2021?

That was one of several questions left unsettled after two days of budget workshops at City Hall this week.

On Tuesday, the City Commission voted to adopt a preliminary general fund operating millage rate of 3.2632 for fiscal year 2021, keeping the property tax rate flat over this year. One mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of taxable value on a property. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, the proposed millage rate would result in $652.64 in city taxes.

Commissioners also raised a series of concerns about details of staff’s budget proposal, indicating the financial plan could be subject to revisions in August and September before final adoption. The proposed budget includes $225 million in proposed expenditures, an 11.9% increase over the previous fiscal year. The general fund budget includes $75.4 million in expenditures and transfers out.

A primary area of emphasis during the commission’s discussion was the budget for the parks and recreation district. The department was one of a few in the general fund to see a proposed increase in budgeted expenditures, rising 5.4% over 2020 to $9.7 million. Still, Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle said the department had to make a series of cuts to ensure its budget was balanced and required no subsidy for the general fund.

As a result of those cuts, the hours at several parks facilities could be reduced when the new fiscal year begins. Fogle said staff planned to limit the operating hours of the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, Arlington Park and Aquatic Complex and Payne Park Tennis Center. The city also proposed closing Lido Beach Pool and Steigerwaldt-Jockey Children’s Fountain for the next year.

The reduced hours were a late add to staff’s budget proposal, a move made to address a $275,480 deficit in the parks and recreation district.

“We were just trying to give you a balanced budget,” Fogle said to the commission. “In doing that, we had to make some of those tough decisions.”

The proposal drew concern from multiple board members during meetings Monday and Tuesday. Commissioner Hagen Brody said he wanted to see the city make cuts from other parts of the budget to avoid a decline in the level of service for parks and recreation. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie said that she was willing to consider a variety of options to ensure the city would be able to maintain its recreational offerings, particularly those aimed at children.

“I think it’s just incredibly problematic that we … amend our general fund to move millions of dollars into the parks and [recreation] district and then have to cut programming for our community at such a critical time,“ Freeland Eddie said.

City Manager Tom Barwin noted that the city had money available in its unassigned fund balance that could offset the last-minute cuts to the parks and recreation budget.

At a special meeting Tuesday following the budget workshops, the commission made few concrete changes to staff’s proposed financial plan. One of those changes was setting aside $33,500 to maintain public restrooms on St. Armands Circle that will be built next year.

Commissioners raised a series of issues they hoped to revisit before the budget is finalized, however. Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked to include a 2.3% wage increase for the city’s nonbargaining employees.

During a discussion of the Sarasota Police Department budget, Police Chief Bernadette DiPino said the $1 million the city set aside to implement a body camera program might not be sufficient to provide adequate staffing to respond to records requests. Commissioners asked staff to provide more detailed information about the costs associated with body cameras.

And, based on this year’s parks budget proposal, Freeland Eddie said she wanted to see the city set aside money in reserves to prepare for next year’s budget, when the city stands to lose an $881,682 annual contribution from Sarasota County for parks services.

The commission will meet again to discuss the budget in August, with staff noting financial projections could change because of COVID-19. Barwin said uncertainty would continue to be a challenge for city officials into 2021.

“However we adopt this budget, the next fiscal year is going to require us all to be nimble,” Barwin said.

The full budget proposal is available on the city’s website.

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