The County Commission will consider a proposal at a meeting Tuesday to phase out its local business tax, cutting public funding to the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County and potentially redirecting cash toward mental health services.
Commissioner Mike Moran placed the item on the agenda, a move he said was a reflection of his belief the EDC has failed to provide metrics demonstrating the value of the work it does with tax revenue.
“If we can’t prove it, my goal is to unfund it,” Moran said.
The EDC, established as an independent agency in 2004, has a mission of sustaining and growing Sarasota’s economy. Since his election to the County Commission in 2016, Moran has been critical of the organization’s operations, questioning the information available for officials to evaluate the efficacy of efforts to improve the local business environment.
Moran’s proposal would phase out the county’s local business tax by the beginning of fiscal year 2025. The tax would be maintained for fiscal year 2022, then lowered by one-third each year until it is completely eliminated. In fiscal year 2021, the EDC’s $1.7 million budget included $1.07 million in public funding.
Moran also proposes reallocating the majority of the county’s $5.96 million economic development incentive fund toward the general fund, leaving behind $1 million for future incentive opportunities. In a separate motion, Moran suggests using the reallocated economic incentive funds to support a mental healthcare district, a tool commissioners have discussed establishing in the 2022 budget.
Dave Bullock, the EDC’s interim CEO and president, sent an email to the EDC board on Friday informing members of the upcoming County Commission discussion. In the email, Bullock highlights work the EDC has done in 2020 and 2021, which included pandemic response efforts such as managing the county’s Small Business Resiliency Loan Program.
Bullock said the EDC has received positive feedback to that work, and he said it did not appear the county had asked members of the business community for input on the prospect of cutting off funding to the organization.
“Good governance suggests a better community decision-making model where stakeholder input is requested, and all interests get a chance to weigh in on proposed changes in community priorities,” Bullock said in the email.
Moran said the timing of his proposal was linked to the EDC’s ongoing search for a new permanent CEO and president. Charlie Murphy, chairman of the EDC board of directors, said the organization made an offer to its top candidate for the opening, but that individual turned down the opportunity. Moran said he was told the candidate said the EDC board needed to have clearer, measurable goals for what it expected from its leadership staff, a point that echoes criticisms Moran has made in the past.
Murphy said he was not made aware of the proposed funding changes until the agenda for the County Commission meeting was published.
When the county discusses Moran’s proposal, Bullock said officials should consider whether economic development is a priority for maintaining and improving Sarasota’s business environment. He said the EDC has seen increased interest in its efforts to market Sarasota County as a business destination, and the organization has worked with new and expanded businesses that have created 337 jobs in the first half of 2021.
Moran suggested the EDC could continue to operate with private funds, and that the county could consider supporting certain initiatives the organization undertakes if he sees a tangible public benefit. Still, unless the EDC can produce a more detailed operational plan with specific benchmarks it hopes to hit, Moran said he won’t be swayed by appeals to maintain a steady stream of public funding for the organization.
“I’m not interested in faculty-lunchroom, dorm-room philosophical chit-chat anymore,” Moran said. “I want measurable outcomes.”