A blog dealing with Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Sarasota County thinking of Copying Legislature on Land Acquisition Subterfuge?

If you watch the May 15 presentation to the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners regarding the Environmentally Sensitive Lands millage (starting around 49:25), you will see Steve Bothelo propose a creative solution to funding some unmet needs in the county without raising the millage rate, but I’m not sure it was based on an accurate premise, and I am concerned it violates the intent of the voters.

The premise seemed to be that Sarasota County is unlikely to need $17 million or more in the coming year for land acquisition, so the .25 mill could be shrunk down to cover the dept service and maintenance, leaving .0779 mill (projected $3,242,000) that could be directed to the general fund for a variety of uses, most of which have nothing to do with what the voters directed the millage for. I believe that at one point or another Mr. Bothelo, the County Administrator, and Carolyn Brown all conveyed an impression that expenditures for PARC/ESLPP lands in the coming year were unlikely to total $17 million, much less $20 million. 

As you might expect, this is the sort of proposal that I believe should have been explored first with PARC and ESLOC, because I think it will come as a surprise for those advisory groups to learn there are no projects that could total $17 million in the near future. Why would that be?

As reported by Carolyn Brown, County staff are currently looking at previously identified sites to see which ones, or which portions of sites, no longer make sense. Obviously, this exercise should reduce the pool of possible expenditures. What staff is NOT doing (according to a recent conversation) is going back and looking at sites that were identified previously but which were back-burnered because the owners were not interested in exploring options with the County at that time. Near the beginning of the ESLPP program the county adopted a policy of not featuring sites with important environmental features if the owners were not interested in the program. Things have changed and owners are coming forward with quality lands for possible protection 

Just for these four possibilities is over $28 million dollars and there is no reason we couldn't close on all in the coming year if the Board decided to do so. There are more out there and with the impending hiring of a new acquisition agent for these two programs, we should expect a new surge in possible acquisitions as fresh eyes and improved GIS techniques are brought to bear. Nor does this analysis factor in continued or renewed interest in a connection from Oscar Scherer to Pinelands and beyond. 

So you can see why I’m puzzled by the conclusion that there isn’t much left to acquire in the coming year/s.

As far as neighborhood parkland opportunities are concerned, there is no requirement that the split be 60/40 in any given year – just that we keep working towards that ratio. But there are some potentially expensive parkland opportunities on the horizon.

•  The City of Sarasota has been fumbling around with a nomination of unique bayfront lands since October. Additions to IBSSA. Parcel to the north $1.85 million. Several lots to the south total somewhere around $5 million.

• I believe it is fair to say PARC has been cautious about buying sites with homes, since they typically cost far more than undeveloped sites. Having said that, at PARCs last meeting, two such opportunities were supported: four parcels in Osprey adjacent to Sarasota Crew [combined 2014 fair market value of $1,315,000] and a waterfront parcel in Englewood contiguous with Indian Mound Park with a 2014 fair market value of $252,400. Part of the appeal of that site was another vacant waterfront lot to the north. What is significant about these five lots is that four have homes on them. 

Were the county to adopt the strategy proposed by Commissioner Maio [aggressively acquiring waterfront sites, even if they have homes, if they are close to existing public lands] and apply it county-wide, (Beachfront, bayfront, river and creek-front) we could no doubt spend a lot of money rapidly.

I’m not sure if all Commissioners are aware that one of the first, if not the first, PARC acquisitions was on Longboat Key and staff has been working with Longboat key staff to refine a plan with a number of active recreation features on that site. My point is that PARC funds are not restricted to passive recreation, but they were not intended to provide facilities such as ball-fields. 

Not that long ago PARC heard a presentation from residents of Palmer Ranch who wanted a ball-field. Apparently, no provision was made for a ball-field in the planning of Palmer Ranch. Why couldn’t an entity as extensive as Palmer Ranch create an MSTU, or equivalent, to secure a parcel suitable for a ball-field? 

I understand from the video there is perceived interest in more of the “true needs of the community “ for active recreational lands. (Longboat Key was cited.) I don’t know what those numbers are. I do know that a few months ago 120,830 Sarasota residents expressed an interest in more land and water acquisition. Of course, they expressed their desires to the state, but we know how the state has responded. If money from Amendment 1 does free up, the County would be well advised to have matching funds available. 

Steve was careful to say “I don’t want it to be misconstrued that we’re taking voter approved, taxpayer monies away —what’s in that program will stay --we’re just not going to go up to that .25 for FY 16. . .” That’s a true statement – the proposal is not to take existing dedicated funds away, but voters should be forgiven for observing that the proposal on the table is to take dollars approved by the voters for this particular program and redirect that voter-approved millage capacity to other general fund projects, most of which have nothing to do with referenda-approved intent. Structurally, at least, this approach appears to be comparable to the Legislature’s current approach to Amendment 1 dollars. 

I feel I must comment on the process. PARC and ESLOC had a joint meeting on April 2, just 43 days before the May 15th Board discussion. This would have been an excellent opportunity to explore the trajectory of anticipated future acquisitions and discuss this millage adjustment strategy, which surely had been envisioned by then. But not only was their no exploration or discussion, there was no mention of this idea.
By design or default (meetings every other month?) advisory boards such as PARC and ESLOC have been left out of several important policy discussions in recent years. (The April 2nd meeting seemed to be dominated by a discussion of dogs in parks, while we were told it was premature to explore the policy implications of granting two square miles of ESLPP-acquired land to a private group for hunting.) One Powerpoint slide on 5-15 indicated PARC and ESLOC would “be briefed”, apparently rather than being consulted.

Rather than shielding advisory boards from important matters and briefing them on the outcomes afterwards, shouldn’t we be inviting the creativity and experience of these bodies to address county needs?

Had PARC and ESLOC been asked to address such County needs, who know what might have emerged. Ideas such as:

• The MSTU  (Palmer Ranch ballfield) approach for both active and passive neighborhood level parks so that neighborhoods (the primary beneficiaries of small neighborhood parks) could act without waiting for PARC funding.

• Developing a coordinated approach working with our legislative delegation (and other like-minded communities) to maximize the potential for some significant fraction of the $17 million we send to Tallahassee each year finds its way back to Sarasota. Less than 20% of our annual Doc stamp contribution would more than offset the $3.2 million sought to be gained through the proposed strategy. Can’t we package and promote “shovel-ready” expenditures (Legacy trail completion, Orange Hammock, etc.) to bring dollars back to Sarasota?

•  Perhaps we could yoke proposed referendum items (Public Safety Campus, Central Energy Plant and Fleet Maintenance Facility) – (projects not known to be voter candy) with funds to implement what will be coming out of the now-unfunded Parks Master Planning process – Legacy Trail completion, North County Athletic Facility, etc.?

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