The city may establish a special taxing mechanism for funding parks and recreation — but it’s unclear what form it will take or what, exactly, it would be used for.
What is a park district?
One of the first things city Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle wants residents to know is that in Sarasota, for now, it’s just a concept — one of several options officials are considering as they examine strategies for funding park services.
Now, as for the substance of the question: A park district would be a special taxing mechanism that collects revenue specifically for parks and recreation expenditures. It would have a separate millage rate from the city’s general fund, listed distinctly on city tax bills.
The City Commission voted 3-2 Oct. 15 to direct staff to prepare an ordinance authorizing the creation of a park district. As Fogle said, that vote doesn’t mean the city will end up establishing a park district. Officials will, however, seriously consider the option as part of a broader examination of the best way to manage the city’s parks.
The commission is set to have a wide-ranging discussion regarding the future of parks at its Dec. 3 meeting. In addition to revisiting the conversation about a park district, Fogle plans to present a final draft of a parks master plan, a strategic document that’s been in development since late 2017.
Fogle said the master plan would include a comprehensive series of recommendations for improving the city’s parks and recreation offerings, as well as input on potential funding strategies. The commission will have the final say on park management going forward, but based on input staff has gathered from residents, Fogle believes the community wants to see a concerted effort to enhance parks citywide.
“The most important thing I heard and I felt from the community was that our parks — in general — need to all be improved and brought up to a higher level,” Fogle said.
Since the recession in the late 2000s, Fogle said the city has been failing to adequately maintain the amenities within its parks. Fogle said deferred maintenance projects alone would represent a significant cost for the city, particularly considering the county’s Oct. 1 transfer of five parks it previously managed to the city’s parks department.
A park district isn’t the only strategy available for increasing parks funding, if that’s what the commission ultimately wants to do. Fogle said the master plan presentation will include other options: allocating more money from the general fund to parks services, increasing user fees, issuing bonds.
And even if the city wants to create a park district, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an increase in taxes — or in parks funding at all. The city could decide to take the general fund money dedicated to parks, $7.2 million in fiscal year 2019, and use that as the baseline for funding the park district. That could correspond with an equal decrease in the general fund millage, should commissioners desire.
Part of the benefit of such a move would be ensuring a stable level of funding for parks services and letting residents know exactly where their money is going, Fogle said. Currently, the parks department can’t build a funding reserve with any money it doesn’t spend, because those dollars must go back to the general fund.
The proposal drew skepticism from some city commissioners at the Oct. 15 meeting. Commissioners Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie voted against moving forward with the concept for now. Both said they believed a park district could be a good idea for the city, but they did not believe staff had provided enough information on how it would work.
“I have too many questions at this point to vote yes on it,” Brody said. “This is a big decision for us, and I believe it seems rushed.”
Fogle said city officials intend to get additional direction from commissioners at meetings in November and December before any plans for a park district are solidified. Already, however, he believes there’s a strong case for devoting increased, dedicated resources to parks and recreation services.
“We want a layer of security in order to provide these amenities as a high level, year after year, even when the economy dips,” Fogle said.