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Observer recommends . . .

City and county charter questions in Manatee and Sarasota.


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This week’s election recommendations focus on local charter amendments and questions.

SARASOTA COUNTY CHARTER

Continues funding for local improvements through renewal of one-cent sales tax; maintains citizen oversight committees

To improve public safety, protect water quality and the environment, reduce traffic congestion and fund projects relating to local schools, parks, libraries and other community needs, should the current one-cent sales tax, paid by visitors and residents, be continued through Dec. 31, 2039? The Citizen Tax Oversight Committees will continue to oversee all expenditures and a 4/5ths vote of the County Commission is required to modify county projects or allocations.

While we are seldom advocates for any tax, it would be antithetical to Sarasota’s quality of life to argue for the elimination of this one-cent infrastructure sales tax.

For one, voters first approved this tax in 1989 and extended it in 1997 and 2007. The county is addicted.

Second, the money must be used for infrastructure, not operating expenses. Third, 20% of the tax money comes from tourists and visitors. That’s a 20% discount for Sarasota County residents.

Fourth, the tax is expected to raise $2 billion during the next 15 years. Without this surtax, that money would likely be raised through higher property taxes.

We recommend: Yes.

Accelerate community projects through issuance of voter-approved one-cent sales tax bonds

To reduce inflation costs and accelerate projects funded by one-cent sales tax proceeds, shall Sarasota County be authorized to issue bonds payable from such proceeds in a total principal amount not to exceed $400 million, maturing by Dec. 31, 2039, bearing interest not exceeding the maximum lawful rate, in addition to bonds issued within the limitations of section 5.2D of the Charter? Bonds are dependent on approval of one-cent sales tax renewal above.

At times of high inflation, it can be advantageous to borrow. You can buy more with your money now than you can later as your dollars lose value.

And if you have a fixed interest rate lower than inflation, the effective real interest rate is negative.

We also know this: Interest rates will continue to rise. Likewise, recession will bring slow to no growth and rising unemployment.

This amendment would give Sarasota County flexibility to move now on the long list of infrastructure projects the county knows must be addressed and would allow the county to bond its debt at lower rates than what rates are likely to be in the future.

The thinking is that the county would be able to borrow at lower rates and keep the construction economy going during the recession by starting future projects sooner rather than wait for future sales revenues that will be worth less than today’s dollars.

But here’s one of the other risks: If the county issues bonds against future sales tax revenue for infrastructure, taxpayers will have to trust county commissioners not to waste these infrastructure funds on stupid projects.

Sarasota County commissioners historically have been prudent stewards of the infrastructure surtax dollars. What’s more, at least there is a $400 million cap on the bonds that can be issued.

While we know governments like to spend and waste whatever money they can get, we’ll roll the dice that Sarasota County commissioners will do the right thing if given this bonding flexibility.       

We recommend: Yes.

SARASOTA COUNTY CHARTER AMENDMENTS

QUESTION 1: To amend section 7.1 charter petition procedures

Shall the Charter be revised to add requirements for a petition form, legal sufficiency review, fiscal impact statement, and a presentation to the Charter Review Board for all charter amendment petitions, as well as requiring 10% of registered voters from each district to sign the petition rather than 10% of registered voters countywide?

This proposed amendment presents a dilemma.

In one respect, it is well-intended. You can see it is designed to discourage wackadoos from proposing dangerous and nutty ideas to change the county’s governing constitution.

So you can see that each of the proposed requirements for charter amendment petitions actually would add safeguards and thresholds for a charter amendment to be placed on the county ballot.

For example: Would the amendment be legal if approved? How much will it cost taxpayers if adopted? And yes, it would be beneficial to have amendment proponents explain and vet their proposals at public hearings. As we know, too often the wording of state and local amendments is confusing. This year is no exception (see city charter amendments).

Likewise, you can also understand requiring petition signatures to total 10% of voters from each of the County Commission districts. That would prevent a petitioner from gathering signatures only from one district that may be sympathetic to his/her cause.

These are all sensible requirements. But when we apply our litmus test — does the amendment increase or decrease individual freedom? — it fails. These requirements will discourage residents and taxpayers from seeking changes to county government. If approved, this amendment actually gives more power to the entrenched government.

We recommend: No.

QUESTION 2: To avoid charter amendment conflicts with the constitution, general law or the charter.

Shall the charter be amended to clarify that proposed charter amendments shall not conflict with the Florida Constitution, general law or the charter?

This question falls into the “needless to say” category.

Common sense would say that any charter amendment that makes it to the ballot should not conflict with the U.S. or state constitutions, general law or the existing county charter. But often times in government lingo, the obvious must be stated. People always find loopholes.

So don’t try to read more into this question that what it says. There aren’t nefarious motivations behind it. Charter Review Board member Richard Dorfman called it “a belt and braces” question — like the man who wears a belt and suspenders for extra assurance with his trousers.

Although it is needless to say, for safety’s sake, it is worth saying.

We recommend: Yes

MANATEE COUNTY QUESTION

Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemptions

Shall the Board of County Commissioners of this county be authorized to grant, pursuant to Section 3, Article VII of the State Constitution, property tax exemptions to new businesses and expansions of existing businesses that are expected to create new, full-time jobs in the county?

This story never changes. Economic development professionals always want to offer special perks to prospective and existing businesses. One argument is that this is necessary to stay competitive with everyone else — the sheep syndrome. Another is they swear the payback from the new or expanded business’ jobs far outweighs the meager subsidy.

Don’t buy any of that. Just the idea of extending tax breaks to a special few at the expense of everyone else is distasteful — and wrong.

Instead of offering tax subsidies, local governments and economic development agencies should concentrate on creating an irresistible business climate: low taxes, low regulation, low crime, good schools, smart labor force, great recreational opportunities.

Time and again, when business owners decide to relocate, all of the above characteristics are the primary incentives. Tax subsidies typically are jelly beans on top of the cake’s icing — rarely the deciding factor to relocate or expand and not necessary to make the cake taste great.

We recommend: No.

SARASOTA CITY AMENDMENTS

Charter Amendment: City Commissioners’ Annual Salary

Amendment to provide that the annual salary paid to city commissioners may be increased to the full salary authorized by the Florida Statutes for a county in population group III, which would be $44,643.97. (Current annual salary paid to City Commissioners is two-thirds of the full salary authorized by statute for population group III.)

If you think the pay for city or county commissioners has any effect on the quality of commissioners who serve or the quality of government taxpayers receive, you might consider this:

In Los Angeles, city council members make $224,000 a year; in Philadelphia, the pay ranges from $117,000 to $148,000. In Longboat Key, town commissioners earn $0.

And without a doubt, Longboat Key is the best of that bunch.

Of course, the above is not an apples-to-apples comparison. But the point is this: Raising the pay of elected officials is no guarantee taxpayers are going to get better government or attract better City Commission candidates.

Here is another way to look at it: “What is in it for me?” That’s what every taxpayer would want to know. What will be the benefit to taxpayers by raising each commissioners’ pay $15,178 a year, or $75,890? What problem would spending that additional $75,890 solve for taxpayers? Less stress on commissioners so they can do a better job?

Whatever they might argue, sorry, it won’t be persuasive.

To be sure, that $75,890 is a snowflake in the city’s $252 million annual budget. But suffice it to say the cliché: Timing is everything. With record inflation, recession and rising anger among taxpayers over what has occurred nationally over the past two years, this is not the time for city commissioners to be asking for a 51.5% increase in pay — no matter what the justification may be.

We recommend: No.

Charter Amendment: Surety bonds or insurance

Amendment to allow the City Commission the option to purchase insurance coverage to protect the city against dishonesty or theft on the part of the city manager; city auditor and clerk; city attorney, (if hired as a permanent city employee); and city director of financial services as an alternative to the current requirement that these city officials be bonded in favor of the city with sureties authorized to do business in the state of Florida.

This proposed amendment is what you might call “inside baseball” or “in the weeds” of city operations. It has little effect on taxpayers.

But if adopted, it can and likely would result in better insurance coverage and costs for the city and taxpayers.

The city charter requires the city to purchase surety bonds (a form of insurance) annually to cover against losses from malfeasance and theft by the city officers enumerated above.

In addition, the city also purchases a crime insurance policy that covers such acts involving the city staff. But according to the city’s human resources director, insurers typically don’t include city executives who are covered by surety bonds in their crime policies.

By modifying the charter language to give the city an option to cover its executives under a crime policy, the city can forego the annual surety bond procedure and wrap the entire city staff under its crime policy — a practice that is more common in municipal governments these days.

As we said: “inside baseball.” But it’s worth the change — for simplicity and efficiency and, likely, cost.

We recommend: Yes.

Charter Amendment: Charter Review Committee General Recommendations

Amendment to provide that City Commission may change city boundaries consistent with law; to allow for digital posting of ordinances and resolutions at City Hall; to remove reference to retention of ordinances in a book; and to update powers and duties of City Auditor and Clerk, including audit function, as provided in Ordinance 22-5419, including responsibility for access to public records and commission agenda preparation.

This amendment is prima facie evidence of why all amendments to the state constitution and to city and county charters should be limited to one subject.

This amendment deals with four subjects. The first three make sense. The fourth is an amalgamation of 10 changes in wording to the responsibilities of the city auditor and clerk. Most of them are insignificant and acceptable. But the last and biggest — entitled “the Audit Function” — is a change that would no longer require the auditor to perform annual audits of city records and accounts.

Instead, the auditor’s duties “shall include … reviewing, investigating and evaluating systems of internal control to promote adequate safeguarding of assets, reliability of financial and operating information and compliance with laws and regulations.” And the auditor shall have the authority to audit.

Most voters don’t know the nuances to this proposal. What’s more, this change would lessen the watchdog duties of the city auditor.

Too bad the first three subjects are included with the fourth. They deserve adoption; the fourth does not.

We recommend: No.

Charter Amendment: Date of referendum on proposed charter amendments

Amendment to require any referendum on a proposed amendment to the City Charter to be held only on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November of an even numbered year to coincide with the general election for federal, state, county, district and municipal elective offices. Amendment would prohibit a referendum on a proposed amendment to the City Charter to be held at a special election called for that purpose.

This amendment would require all future elections on city charter amendments to be held only when general elections occur every two years in even-numbered years. It would eliminate special elections on charter amendments.

City Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch opposed the amendment because she says it would restrict and reduce the city’s flexibility in terms of enacting an important future change quickly. But it also would prevent a dubious charter amendment pushed by a special interest group from being voted on in a special election, which historically attract the fewest number of voters.

We recommend: Yes.

Next week: The candidates.