The discussion about parking options comes as the county looks to cut millions from its budget.
County commissioners want to take incremental steps toward implementing new Siesta Key parking initiatives, which could include more parking lots, paid parking or a park-and-ride program.
But even as the discussion got started, Commissioner Nancy Detert asked the biggest question of the discussion: Can the county afford it?
The presentation of parking options came two weeks after the commission finalized its 2017-18 budget. The board used more than $5 million in reserves to balance the budget.
Earlier in the summer, commissioners declined to take staff’s recommendation to increase property taxes and create a new tax on public services for residents in unincorporated parts of the county. The public services tax would have brought in $5.4 million this year, staff said.
“Everything comes with a cost, and what I can tell you is that Siesta Key donates an awful lot of revenue to Sarasota County.”
Instead, commissioners agreed to take the first quarter of the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, to find areas to cut department budgets, hoping to keep as much money as possible in reserve. On Oct. 10, the commission had its first discussion on potential cuts. The board decided it would move slowly and make careful cuts, agreeing the budget changes wouldn’t materialize right away.
As commissioners proceed with cuts, they’re taking the same slow approach to parking on Siesta Key — but budgetary concerns are affecting the discussions. On Oct. 11, the board heard a presentation from staff on ways to address Siesta Key’s parking problems. They directed staff to come back frequently with more information as they begin taking small bites out of the issue, rather than trying to accomplish everything with a large presentation and discussion in six months.
Commissioners asked to see more specific information about building a parking lot at 6647 Midnight Pass Road after the Sheriff’s Office vacates the property, a move that will be finalized this week. They agreed this seemed like the easiest option to put in place quickly.
The price was a major point of concern, though. When told that turning the Midnight Pass property into a parking lot could cost up to $530,000, commissioners asked county staff to “crunch the numbers” and find ways to lower the price.
“That may be a timing issue,” County Administrator Tom Harmer said when Detert asked if the county has money to proceed with a project.
Siesta Key businesses and residents have encouraged the county to proceed quickly with plans to address parking issues. Nora Patterson, a Siesta Key resident and former county commissioner whose term ended in 2014, said there’s always a need for more parking on the island.
She couldn’t speak to the county’s fiscal state, but said when she was a commissioner, a $530,000 price tag for a new parking lot likely wouldn’t have been an issue.
“At the time that I served we had a great deal of reserve money,” she said. “We probably could have afforded it.”
County staff has not identified specific funding sources for the Midnight Pass lot or other parking projects.
Siesta Key property owner Chris Brown said he thinks parking, which has been a conversation for more than a decade, should be a priority.
“Everything comes with a cost, and what I can tell you is that Siesta Key donates an awful lot of revenue to Sarasota County,” he said. “I think that if we did not have to support some of the other projects that have nothing to do with the island, and we could keep some of that money in house, I think (parking options) could become more affordable.”
Commissioner Al Maio, whose district includes Siesta Key, is optimistic that as the Midnight Pass project moves forward, funding will come together as new properties are completed and generate county property tax revenue.
“All the stuff that’s being built ... has a two-and-a-half-year lag from when the shovel goes into the ground to when it actually hits the tax rolls,” he said. “I believe some of that we’ll start seeing in fiscal year ’19, and then even more in fiscal year ’20. So we have to take the budgets a year at a time.”
At the same time, Maio acknowledged a threat to future county revenue. He believes the state is likely to pass a homestead tax exemption that would take away between $6 million to $8 million from what the county already collects. Commissioners have been voicing concerns about the potential move from the state for months.
“If I were a betting man, I think it will pass,” he said.
A date has not been scheduled for staff’s next presentation about parking.