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Sarasota parks
Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 5 months ago

City’s parks ambitions remain uncertain

A master plan outlines $200 million in potential improvements to city parks. How much of that are officials interested in pursuing?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

David Barth assured the City Commission he is aware $200 million is a big number.

According to Barth’s research, that’s how much the city would need to invest in its parks and recreation operations to reach an ideal level of service. Barth, a consultant the city hired to draft a parks master plan, presented his findings to the commission at a meeting Monday.

He told the board he recognized that spending $200 million, even over 10 or 20 years, was likely unfeasible. But he asked the board to consider some big questions: How much, exactly, are officials willing to spend on parks improvements? What financing options are they willing to consider?

So far, there’s no clear answer.

Some commissioners expressed a hesitance about committing significant amounts of money to the improvements outlined in the master plan. Barth’s report included a recommended $70 million first phase of implementation, to be carried out over the course of a decade.

Commissioner Hagen Brody said that figure is significant enough on its own, but it becomes even more daunting when considering additional parks-related expenses that aren’t part of the master plan.

A different report has said Bobby Jones Golf Club needs more than $15 million in improvements. The city is also planning a bayfront redevelopment project expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

“It’s above and beyond what is reasonable,” Brody said of the recommendations in the master plan.

Brody also pushed back against a proposed half-mill property tax, which Barth suggested could help fund the first phase of the master plan. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, a half-mill levy would represent $100 in annual taxes.

Commissioner Willie Shaw, however, expressed strong support for an ambitious program to improve city parks. Shaw saw neighborhood parks as an opportunity for the city to provide enhanced services for families with young children and the working class. As the city grows, he called increased taxes a necessary step to ensure a satisfactory quality for parks-related amenities.

“How the hell else are we gonna get it done?” Shaw asked.

Barth said the city has fallen behind in parks maintenance over the past decade. Of the $70 million proposed first phase, $22.6 million is tied to work designed to get existing city parks up to their expected level of service.

City Manager Tom Barwin said Sarasota has not prioritized parks upkeep until recently, calling the decline of some parks “benign neglect.”

Barth acknowledged the costs in the master plan were significant and said other cities across the state are dealing with the same issues. He said the commission will ultimately decide how much of the plan it’s willing to take on.

For now, that decision has been deferred. The commission directed staff to work with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Advisory Board on options for implementing various levels of improvements to parks citywide.

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