Perhaps, the most important attribute we should expect of our City of Sarasota government is TRUST. We should be able to trust our city officials to assure us of:
- Clean neighborhoods; adequate, affordable, functional utilities and waste management
- Protection against crime, fire and other harmful conditions
- Cooperate with healthcare centers offering the latest in medical science and technology
- Attract and assist educational and research venues for adults and our youth
- Efficient traffic flow and ample parking to service convenient restaurants, shops, offices
- Open space for gardens, parks and other recreational facilities
- Support for museums, theaters, and other venues for cultural events
In whom do we entrust our local governance? In short, our local welfare and taxpayer dollars are in the hands of our five elected City Commissioners and a City Manager. Staff reports to the City Manager who is accountable only to the Commissioners. (Each year, a new mayor is rotated in from among the City Commissioners but has little or no authority beyond that of a Commissioner, other than to conduct meetings.)
Have our elected and hired officials acted with integrity and in a professional manner to have earned our trust? Outlined below are of some selective issues that relate to at least one facet of each of the numbered points above but, before we start down the list, there’s the issue of conflict of interest, something that goes directly to the core of whether or not there can be any trust in our city government.
Our City Commissioners placed in the hands of the City Manager the responsibility of negotiating with the labor union the wages for union members employed by the city. The City Manager is not a union employee; however–now get this–the percentage of ANY INCREASE in union wages agreed between the City Manager (on behalf of us taxpayers) and the union representative APPLY TO THE WAGES OF THE CITY MANAGER! The City Manager is negotiating our money for himself . . . and the City Commissioners authorized it!
This might explain at least in part why we have a City Manager receiving higher pay than the County Manager responsible for an area and population vastly larger than the City of Sarasota, not to mention a budget that’s six times larger than that of the city. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 1 (from above): Decades ago, the City of Sarasota formed its own water and sewer district, which was long before other means of supplying drinking water to the city were available. That condition is no longer the case today, for most of the drinking water for Sarasota and surrounding counties are provided by the Peace River Manasota Regional Water Supply Authority.
So, why is it that the City Commissioners, at the urging of the City Manager, chose last year to move forward with a $300 million upgrade without even looking at alternatives, such as Peace River? How can we trust either our Commissioners or City Manager, all ignoring competitive alternatives?
The scary conclusion is the $300.0 million may well end up costing $600.0 million or more, give3n past history that includes, among other things, Lift Station 87, for which the city budgeted $9 million and expecting it to take three years from start to finish. The reality is that the $9 million has burgeoned to $75 million and we can now expect a completion date that will be in excess of ten years from when this all began.
What’s more, our website (BESTforSarasota.com) will show that current monthly water utility bills in our city are 20% higher than Bradenton and Longboat Key and will be going up by at least 3.5% a year for the next 11 years, according to the SARASOTA HERALD TRIBUNE on July 16, 2019). If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 2: When the city determined the appropriate compensation for our police officers, was trust in our city government earned? For the most part, our police officers are highly respected; however, are you aware morale among them is low, as are their wages?
When one considers that over 50% of the City’s General Fund is spent on our police force, how is it possible their salaries are lower than those, say, of the County Sheriffs? The answer is that the Commissioners decided to pay reduced salaries but over-compensate our officers by way, primarily, of an overly expensive and underfunded retirement program. On the other hand, our Police Chief earns a salary HIGHER than that of the County Sheriff bearing considerably more responsibility.
Add to that we, as taxpayers, are spending money on duplicate forensic laboratories, K-9 units, administration, etc., which could be avoided if only the city were to contract these services with the county, rather than have its own bloated operation. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 3: Sarasota Memorial Hospital is Florida’s highest-rated medical center and one of America’s top 100. It’s also vital for our economy, for it’s this area’s largest employer.
When the hospital needed to expand to provide desirable health services, it was the city that stood in its way by refusing to allow it to place certain facilities in their most cost efficient, workable location. The hospital was forced to alter its plans and waste time and money in order to construct a less desirable solution for what leg itimatereason no one can really explain. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 4: One of Sarasota’s most notable research facilities is Mote Marine that wanted to build a world-class aquarium within the City of Sarasota, an aquarium that would have been a gorgeous and apt addition to the Bayfront. Due to Sarasota’s City Manager’s view that he didn’t want the Bayfront to become a “tourist trap,” or to serve as a catalyst for increased traffic in the area, the City rejected Mote’s proposal. Ultimately, Mote secured an excellent parcel of land in the county and will be constructing what will surely be one of the most attractive structures in Florida, offering education and research benefiting everyone.
“Tourist trap?” Is the City Manager lucid? Are America’s top aquariums “tourist traps.” Ask the City of Atlanta (GA) or Monterey (CA) or Long Beach (CA) or Chicago (IL), some of the top aquariums in the US, if they view their aquarium a “tourist trap.” It’s a place for families, for advancing knowledge, for a change of pace that’s relatively affordable for most people. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 5: The City Commissioners with a schizophrenic approach to parking meters finally decided it would charge those parking on our downtown streets. What happened during COVID was both devious and unethical.
Our City Commissioners KNOWINGLY defrauded the public by discontinuing its monitoring the parking meters but not telling anyone. Innocent victims of the city’s duplicity paid for parking when they would not have been ticketed if they didn’t.
Taking advantage of the public is wrong no matter when it occurs but to do it during times of high unemployment and financial stress is unconscionable. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 6: One of the city’s largest open spaces is the Bobby Jones golf course. The course is only used by nine percent of Sarasota’s residents; yet, the runs red ink every year. It’s budgeted loss for last year was $1.2 million. The City Commissioners decided to spend $200,000 for a study to help them determine how to best deal with this situation. The report concluded that, if the city were to spend $17 million to improve the 36-hole golfing venue, it would lose only $1 million each and every year thereafter.
The Commissioners decided it was worth the investment! If the $17 million is borrowed, we would add an additional $1 million in loan payments, so we taxpayers would be kicking in $2 million a year for the relatively few who bother to play on the course. Because of the uproar this caused, the Commissioners changed direction and decided to give away a portion of valuable taxpayer land to a conservancy without a dime of consideration and without voter approval.
The result is that we taxpayers spent $200,000 for truly worthless advice and we wound up with the following: An area that takes up nine holes of the 36-hole golf course is going into a land conservancy as open space, the remaining 27-holes will be improved at a cost of millions of dollars and we will continue feeding significant cash into the renovated golf course for the nine percent of our citizens who use it. You can’t make up this stuff!
Had they given any real thought to this issue, this property could have been used, for instance, as a site on which desperately needed affordable housing could be constructed. If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
Item 7: To complete the list of examples, we’ll address the city’s owned and operated Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, where outstanding entertainment events are consistently calendared. The Van Wezel, however iconic it is, is a functionally obsolete building that’s also in a condition of material disrepair.
The city is supporting the redevelopment of the Bayfront with the intention of constructing a new performing arts center in a location almost adjacent to the current Van Wezel structure. Did our Commissioners or City Manager consider other potential sites where a new performing arts center might be constructed both faster and less expensively? Did any of them consider using the Van Wezel has the focal point for a more comprehensive cultural center, one that might also include a theater for the orchestra and the ballet, a sculpture garden, art galleries, eating establishments and artist lofts—a true cultural center? I can tell you affirmatively they considered neither, certainly not seriously.
Without a thorough investigation and examining alternatives before spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the City Commissioners seem to believe the best site for the new performing art center is on the Bayfront, the most valuable parcel of underutilized land in the City of Sarasota.
Rather than look at potential sites in an area where rejuvenation is sincerely warranted, an area where new projects will beautify and otherwise enhance downtrodden portions of our city, our Commissioners are taking an enormously valuable property that could easily bring considerable income to our already overtaxed citizens by working with public/private partnerships that will better utilize the land in a mixed-use project that would include commercial space open to the public and designed in a way to take full advantage of the lovely water views that are totally wasted on a performing arts hall where shows are presented in a dark, non-windowed space.
From where will the city secure hundreds of millions of dollars for this ill-conceived venture? They say the money will come from the implementation of tax increment financing, a form of borrowing money by selling bonds to the public. The funds needed to pay the debt will, hopefully, be covered by property and other taxes generated from private developments that would not have otherwise been deemed possible.
Let’s get real! No one needs to encourage development anywhere near the Bayfront. It’s highly desirable as it is. Development, however, IS needed in neighborhoods where significant improvements can enhance the life and livelihood of many inhabitants. What will attract private investors to infuse capital into such areas is by the city kick-starting it with the sort of cultural arts center described above. That’s what will elevate a neighborhood out of a blighted condition. That’s how tax increment financing makes sense and why it was created.
So, the way our city government wants it, the expensive neighborhoods will get more expensive and the poor neighborhoods will get poorer. Is that sort of decision–making you expect of the people we citizens put in charge? If you are beginning to doubt any trust you had in our city government, you have good cause.
To sum up, the trust we’ve ascribed to our City Commissioners, who, in turn, hired a City Manager on whom they seem to be relying, is simply non-existent. One cannot help but believe our trust has been horribly misplaced.