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Sarasota reverses course on trolley funding

Responding to objections from property owners, the City Commission scaled back its plans for spending money from downtown and St. Armands business districts.

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  • | 6:00 p.m. September 22, 2021
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As the City Commission finalized its budget for fiscal year 2022 on Tuesday, officials modified plans to undo a decision that could have thrown into question the future of the Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement District.

Headed into Tuesday’s meeting, the city planned to appropriate $150,000 from the DID and $100,000 from the BID to help fund a $1.5 million trolley service running from downtown to Lido Key. Earlier this month, despite objections from the DID and BID boards of directors, the commission voted 3-2 in favor of authorizing the spending.

Background: Downtown group balks at trolley funding

But on Tuesday, the commission voted 4-1 to scale back the use of DID and BID funds to $50,000 from each group. Commissioners who initially supported taking more money from the improvement districts said they changed their mind based on follow-up conversations with downtown and St. Armands property owners.

“Upon reflection, I found their arguments both substantive and procedurally valid,” Commissioner Hagen Brody said.

Also read: City considers trolley route between downtown, islands

The DID and BID are self-taxing bodies that generate funds via an additional 2-mill tax on commercial properties within the district’s boundaries. When the city turned to both groups with a request to assist with funding the trolley route earlier this year, both boards of directors were reluctant to acquiesce, expressing skepticism about the benefits the service would provide for them. Both boards instead set aside up to $50,000 toward the trolley.

When the city subsequently attempted to allocate the requested money without approval from the boards of directors, representatives for both groups called it an overreach that jeopardized the autonomy the improvement districts have historically enjoyed. At a DID meeting Friday, board members called into question the commission’s legal authority make such a decision. Members of both boards mentioned dissolution as a possible response to the city’s funding plans.

After the commission expressed its intent to reduce its reliance on improvement district money, DID board member Mark Kauffman said he was grateful that officials were willing to adjust their position based on pushback from partner organizations.

“You are a far better commission to have been able to change your mind on something that’s so important to two boards,” Kauffman said.

City officials indicated additional funding for the trolley would instead come from the city’s economic development fund. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch cast the lone vote against the finalized DID and BID budgets, stating she did not believe the city should use any funds from the groups for the trolley. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, the commission officially adopted its 2022 budget. The city set its general fund millage rate at 3.1372 mills, a 3.9% decrease over the previous year.


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