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City budget prioritizes parks, police

Staff’s proposed $248.8 million budget for 2019-20 includes a flat operating millage rate, though a portion of property tax revenue could go to a new parks and recreation district.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. July 11, 2019
Finance Director Kelly Strickland discusses the 2019-20 proposed budget at a special City Commission meeting Tuesday.
Finance Director Kelly Strickland discusses the 2019-20 proposed budget at a special City Commission meeting Tuesday.
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City administrators recommend a 7.8% increase in spending in the next fiscal year, but officials do not believe a tax increase is necessary to fund the additional spending.

During a pair of workshops Monday and Tuesday, city staff presented its proposed budget for 2019-20, which calls for $248.8 million in spending. Major proposed departmental expenditures include $63.7 million for water and wastewater utilities, $35.6 million for police, $11.5 million for building services and $9.2 million for parks and recreation.

Although the budget does not recommend any changes to the operating millage rate, staff is endorsing a new approach to how the city distributes its property tax income. The budget proposes using a parks and recreation taxing district, which the City Commission created last year, to collect revenue to fund park expenses.

For 2018-19, the city’s general fund millage rate was 3.2632. The 2019-20 budget proposes lowering that rate to 2.5963 and creating a new parks and recreation millage rate of .6669, which would produce the same operating tax rate. One mill is equal to $1 in tax for every $1,000 of taxable value on a property. For a property with a taxable value of $200,000, the proposed millage rate would result in $652.64 in city taxes.

The city’s parks department previously fell under the general fund. Staff said the change was designed to ensure funding for parks remained dedicated to parks even during periods of economic uncertainty. Because the city is establishing a new taxing district, the commission would need a unanimous vote to establish the proposed millage rate.

The budget includes 14 new parks-related positions at a cost of $561,664. Several of those new jobs would focus on Arlington Park and the Payne Park Tennis Center, two properties Sarasota County operated until last year. Jerry Fogle, the city’s parks and recreation director, said his department determined the parks were in need of additional staffing and other improvements after taking control.

“We had no clue what we were getting ourselves into,” Fogle said.

In addition to the new tax distribution, the budget recommends transferring $2.4 million in unallocated general fund money into the parks district to establish a reserve and help cover a $301,586 deficit.

After accounting for the removal of parks and recreation expenses, the city's general fund spending is proposed to increase $3.2 million over last year to $67.8 million. The budget includes 13 new general fund positions at a cost of $906,573. Eight of those positions are in the police department, six of which are sworn officer roles.

The police budget represents 52.3% of proposed general fund expenditures. The 179 sworn officer positions is short of the recommended staffing levels in an International Association of Chiefs of Police report produced earlier this year, which said the city should have between 191 and 212 sworn positions.

Sarasota Police Department Chief Bernadette DiPino said the budget proposal was put together prior to the finalization of that report. She added said the process of incorporating new officers into the department was a lengthy and intensive process that involved both recruiting and training.

“It’s a challenge on many different resources in our agency,” DiPino said.

One potential spending increase is partially a response to a new state law. The city’s building services fund proposed a budget that includes $11.5 million in expenditures, more than double the fund’s budgeted revenues. The major reason for the spending increase is $4.8 million in capital expenses for a new facility.

The city was already planning to relocate its building department, but Finance Director Kelly Strickland said that initiative is an even higher priority because the Florida Legislature passed a law stating a city could not maintain reserves in its building fund that exceeded the department’s average operating budget. The city had more than $10 million in reserves in its building services fund. If unspent, that money would need to be used to rebate or reduce building fees.

On Monday, July 15, the commission will give staff direction on the maximum millage rates for the general fund and park district. The commission will formally adopt a budget and set a millage rate at a pair of meetings in September.


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