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Siesta Key Thursday, Mar. 1, 2012 5 years ago

Sarasota County braces for looming shortfalls

by: Kurt Schultheis Senior Editor

Sarasota County expects at least a $14 million budget shortfall in the 2015 fiscal year, after its reserve fund runs out, as well as a $35 million shortfall the year after that.

During their first budget workshop of the year, held Feb. 23, the county commissioners made some preliminary decisions on budget and tax increases. Among those was tentative approval of a property-tax hike to pay for mosquito management services.

It would be the first time that tax has been raised in 10 years.

The higher rate would translate into $12 more per year for a home with a $200,000 taxable value. The tax hike will be considered again in June, when the commission will set tentative millage rates for advertising and a public hearing. The final budget is scheduled for approval in September.

The increase would cover the mosquito program’s estimated $1.5 million annual cost.

Commissioner Joe Barbetta urged those attending the budget workshop to realize “it’s a restoration of a previous millage rate, even though it will be called a tax-rate increase.”

During the county’s economic boom, the commission cut the tax for five straight years , because the mosquito management fund was taking in too much money. However, the lack of a tax, combined with the recession, resulted in the County Commission’s deciding to use general-fund dollars to pay for the service the past couple of years.

“While I oppose unnecessary millage rates, this one is necessary, and I never anticipated the general fund to permanently subsidize mosquito control,” said Commissioner Nora Patterson.

The tentative decision, however, came on a 3-2 vote, with Barbetta, Patterson and Commissioner Carolyn Mason approving the tax. Mason made it known she could change her mind before a final vote takes place this summer.

Also looming is a decision on an aging county emergency-response communications system, which Interim Fire Chief Mike Tobias said is being held together by a series of figurative band-aids and is unreliable.

An up-to-date 800 MHz system is needed in the future, Tobias said. However, the thought of spending $30 million for it made commissioners cringe. They agreed to put off any further discussion of that topic until later this summer.

Another major decision for the commission last week involved the transfer of $2.47 million from the general fund to pay for another year of Health and Human Services Department costs.

The County Commission also agreed to set aside $6 million toward the county’s economic incentive grant program, to offset high unemployment rates by trying to attract more companies to the area.

While Patterson agreed with the incentive-grants funding, she voiced worries over it in the context of county budget projections showing shortfalls beginning in the 2015 fiscal year.

“My concern is we are leaving a legacy in a couple years of substantial decisions that have to be made,” Patterson said.

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