- July 17, 2018
This week is the final installment of our analyses and recommendations on ballot questions.
This week we focus on the county and city amendments and referenda — five Sarasota County charter amendments; one Sarasota County bond referendum; one Manatee County School Board referendum; and one city of Sarasota charter amendment.
To acquire and improve the Legacy Trail Extension railroad corridor from North Port through Venice to downtown Sarasota … shall Sarasota County issue General Obligation bonds, not exceeding the maximum lawful interest rates, maturing within 20 years from each issuance, not exceeding $65 million payable from ad valorem taxes restricted to these purposes?
You would be hard pressed to find a Sarasota County resident who doesn’t think it would be fantastic to have a bike and walking trail extending from North Port to the old Venice Train Depot to Payne Park in downtown Sarasota.
Yes, it would be fantastic.
But not at a cost to taxpayers of $124 million.
This $65 million bond issue would be stacked on top of $44 million of taxpayer dollars already “invested”/spent to create the existing 12.5-mile Legacy Trail. Add the two: $109 million.
Now add in the $4 million annual debt service over 20 years. That’s $80 million — $15 million in interest.
The $80 million would pay for the addition of 7.5 more miles of CSX rail tracks. And that money would come from an increase in county property taxes — estimated at a 0.07 millage increase, or $14 per year on a home valued at $200,000, $35 a year on a home valued at $500,000.
Proponents say the additional tax per year is a pittance in the scheme of things.
But given all of the choices and needs for taxpayer dollars, we find it difficult to justify $124 million for a 20-mile, free-to-use bike trail. Mind you, that dollar amount does not include annual maintenance costs.
The Legacy Trail is a nice-to-have luxury. But we have always advocated users should carry much of the burden for the cost. This measure simply places the burden on property owners.
We recommend: Vote no.
1) Shall Sarasota County Charter Section 7.1 be amended to place citizen-initiated charter amendments on the next general election ballot upon receiving signatures from 10% of registered voters, provided that signatures are gathered within a set general election cycle timeframe, instead of having an unlimited time to obtain signatures of 5% of registered voters for placement of citizen-initiated amendments on a special election ballot that is held 60 days after certification of the signatures?
This proposed amendment has several practical improvements over what currently exists.
The existing charter specifies a special election within 60 days after the signatures on a citizen-initiated amendment is filed with the Supervisor of Elections. But the elections supervisor says that 60-day period is not enough time to secure polling places, train poll workers and meet the deadlines to mail ballots to out-of-county voters.
What’s more, a special election costs $400,000.
The proposed amendment would save money by putting amendments on general election ballots.
Raising the threshold of signatures to 10% of registered voters would demonstrate ample support for a charter change; that it is not just a small group advocating a fringe cause. The 10% threshold also is more in line with the norm around Florida. The state requires 8% of voters for citizen amendments.
The time frame requirement specifies for petitioners and voters exactly when the initiative will appear on a ballot; whereas the current charter leaves that question open-ended.
Here’s another benefit: Having amendments on the general election ballot likely will increase the number of people voting. In special elections, low voter turnout typically means a small minority is making decisions for the majority, never a good practice in a democracy.
We recommend: Vote yes
2) Shall Section 7.1 of the Sarasota County Charter be amended to allow charter amendments proposed by the Charter Review Board to be voted upon only on the next general election, rather than on the next countywide election?
This is similar to the previous proposed charter amendment. It would require the Charter Review Board to conform to the same rules as the citizenry for charter amendments — except for obtaining voter signatures.
We recommend: Vote yes
3) [Sarasota] County vacated an approximately 373-foot-long portion of Beach Road on Siesta Key in 2016, which had been closed for some time. The vacated portion of Beach Road is accessible by all means, including pedestrian, but not including motorized vehicles. Shall the charter be amended to require the county to reacquire this portion of Beach Road and reopen it for vehicular traffic, as well as never vacate it in the future?
This is the diehard campaign of longtime Siesta Key resident Mike Cosentino, who opposes the Sarasota County Commission’s action in 2016 to vacate a tiny portion of Beach Road. Cosentino wants this stretch of Beach Road reopened to vehicles, even though it has been closed since the early 1990s.
This is a futile proposal. The road, if reopened, would be a perpetual maintenance nuisance. Even the Siesta Key Association, the staunchest defender of the beach and beach access, is not on Cosentino’s side.
We recommend: Vote no
4) Presently, the Board of County Commissioners has the authority to sell any county-owned property and vacate roads and rights of way. Shall the charter be amended to prohibit the county from selling or giving away county-owned parks and preserves and to prevent the county from vacating any road segments or rights of way abutting any beach, river, creek, canal, lake, bay, gulf access or waterfront vista?
This amendment is Part II to Cosentino’s fight (see item 3).
Observer columnist Adrian Moore summarized this proposal best last month on this page:
“When expanding or improving parks or boat ramps or beach access, sometimes the county makes deals with landowners to trade rights of way or vacate or preserve access in various ways, trying to shape things to allow the best design of access, parking and recreation.
“If we tie the County Commission’s hands forever by locking in all current rights of way along water, we are assuming nothing will ever change, which is demonstrably the opposite of what is true.
“One man’s passion, however heartfelt, should not … prevent the county from making future decisions to improve the use of rights of way.”
We recommend: Vote no
5) Shall each member of the Board of the County Commissioners of Sarasota County be elected by only those voters residing in the same district in which the commissioner resides, rather than having each member of the Board of County Commissioners elected by voters county-wide as presently exists in Article II, Section 2.1A of the Sarasota County Charter?
To understand how this is a bad idea all you need to do is look at the U.S. House of Representatives — representing the special interests of their districts, not the best interests of the nation.
Candidates constantly decry incumbents for being beholden to special interests and voting to subsidize and protect special interests in their districts.
This is exactly what this charter amendment would bring to the County Commission.
This amendment is not some altruistic effort to improve Sarasota County government. This is an attempt by the Democratic Party to make it easier to break Republicans’ hold on the County Commission.
Don’t buy the arguments that single-member districts will give everyone more of a voice or how they will increase diversity on the commission.
When you analyze the difference between all voters electing commissioners versus smaller numbers electing only one commissioner, single-member districts inevitably lead to bad government. They fuel earmark-style spending (bridges to nowhere) and behind-the-scenes, political dealmaking.
Here’s a good microcosm: the Longboat Key Town Commission. Longboat has seven commissioners — five from districts, two at-large commissioners. All Longboat Key voters vote for all commissioners.
This system has proven beneficial over and over again. When commissioners vote on decisions, they vote for what’s best for all residents and Longboat Key. They have the big picture in mind, not just the interests of the residents in their districts. We would argue, as a result, Longboat Key is one of the best governed and best-managed municipalities in Florida.
The current system of voters voting on all commission candidates assures taxpayers that commissioners are motivated to make decisions that are good for the many, not just the few.
We recommend: Vote no
Changes City Commission elections from March and May in odd numbered years to August and November in even numbered years to coincide with federal, state and county elections. No candidate shall be elected in the August election. The August election shall occur only when required by the number of qualifying candidates. Otherwise, the November election shall be the only election. Changes Commission appointment of mayor and vice mayor to coincide with election dates.
Finally, city voters will have the opportunity to change the city’s voting schedule.
The primary impetus for this change is to bring an end to less than 20% of the city’s voters deciding the outcomes of City Commission elections.
The governance of the city of Sarasota desperately needs change. This amendment is a step in the right direction.
Shall the election of Manatee School Board members be changed to single-member representation beginning in 2020, in accordance with and described in Resolution 2017-03?
See the single-member district discussion above.
We recommend: Vote no