Following a second round of voting by the commercial property owners in St. Armands Circle, the quest to renew the special neighborhood improvement district has failed.
Falling just short of the votes needed to renew the BID earlier this year at 48.9%, the referendum received less support on the second ballot.
As a result, on Sept. 30, 2023, the St. Armands Business Improvement District will cease to exist and all the remaining revenue collected from the property owners in the special tax district, nearly $700,000, will be turned over to be managed by the city’s finance department.
The Sarasota City Commission received a report on the results of the renewal vote at its regular meeting on Monday.
On June 22, 63 ballots were mailed by certified mail, return receipt requested, to registered property owners at their last known mailing address.
The deadline for returning completed ballots to the city auditor and clerk's office was Tuesday, Aug. 1. By 7 p.m. on that date, 40 ballots had been received — all of them certified as valid — the votes weighted based on the assessed value of the property each ballot represents. Of the returned ballots, those representing 39.96% of the assessed value voted yes with 19.71% opposed, falling well short of the required 50% to renew the BID through Sept. 30, 2033.
Julie Ryan, a city employee who serves as business manager of both the St. Armands BID and the Downtown Improvement District, told commissioners the communication process with the property owners was more robust than the first ballot earlier this year.
“We have done newsletters to not only the merchants, to the residents and to the property owners. We've done mailings, we personally made phone calls — not only myself and the chair — but also some other property owners who supported the BID,” Ryan said. “There had been more outreach this second time around than we did the first time because we didn't have the mechanism. There wasn't a newsletter. There wasn't a website. So there was more communication.”
Regardless of the enhanced campaign, Ryan said the results were nearly identical to the first ballot, when 41 ballots were received, three rejected as invalid per state guidelines.
“This time we got 40, so the numbers are the same,” Ryan said. “Some owners vote differently. There was one property owner who represented over 12.5% who voted for it. I have heard different reasons. We did have a hurricane, insurance prices have more than doubled. The property owners within the district are paying an assessment for the parking garage, so they do have a lot of other finances and I just think the timing probably wasn't the best.”
Termination of the BID means enhanced levels of city services — which were funded by a portion of the additional 2.00 mils per year the property owners paid — in St. Armands Circle will cease. Ryan told commissioners the BID had set aside $479,000 for either a complete streets or streetscape capital project, funds that can only be used for capital improvements. At the end of the fiscal year, the BID's estimated fund balance is $187,000.
The BID was also contributing $50,000 per year to help fund the Bay Runner trolley, an equal amount paid by the Downtown Improvement District. That $50,000, City Manager Marlon Brown told commissioners at a previous budget workshop, would have to come from elsewhere should the BID not be renewed.
The BID’s demise came complete with one more appearance before the commission by opposing St. Armands business leaders Tom Leonard, chairman of the BID, and Rachel Burns, marketing director for the St. Armands Circle Association, which represents the merchants. Burns had served as the SACA executive director before submitting her application to fill one of two vacant seats on the BID board, seats that will not be filled.
“I ask that in next year's budget the commissioners will consider giving at least $100,000 to the Parks and Recreation Department for the refurbishment and beautification of the four medians within the circle,” Burns told commissioners. “I encourage this commission to recommend that the three current BID directors utilize their final meeting to allocate and distribute funds for projects that do not fit into the capital improvement project category.”
Those projects include funding for the Bay Runner for the next two years and the longstanding partnership between the BID and SACA to erect and decorate the Christmas tree in the circle park.
“These two reoccurring projects encourage visitors, which profit the merchants, which allows them to pay their rent to the land owners,” Burns said. “I hope that the BID will choose to disburse funds responsibly prior to the Sept. 30 cessation.”
Leonard took exception to Burns’ request.
“Unfortunately Miss Burns did not vote to renew the BID, but now she sits here before you asking for the remaining funds from the BID for her own use,” Leonard responded. “I'd like to submit a budget of what we spent over the past 10 years. Almost $800,000 went to the St. Armands Association. That doesn't include the $286,000 grant we got for the tree, but the BID had budgeted moving forward $50,000 a year to support the trolley and over $100,000 a year for capital enhancement services.
“We've also pledged over $500,000 for the streetscape. These items are all high priority for property owners and I look forward to working with staff to find a way to optimize financial opportunities to continue these services and capital improvements. This is not the end, but a new chapter, and with the support of this commission, we will continue to make St. Armands a top destination for city residents and visitors alike.”