Up & Down the Trail

| June 1, 2013

by Stan Zimmerman

Women win marathon political race

The longest election cycle in Sarasota city history ended May 14 with the election of Susan Chapman and re-election of Suzanne Atwell to the city commission.

The election date was moved back a month by the Florida Legislature to ensure members of the armed services would have enough time to request, receive, mark and return an absentee ballot.

The election capped a nearly year-long race for two at-large seats on the commission. Commissioner Terry Turner declined to run for a second term.

Not only was it the longest race, but also the most expensive. Six candidates started, and among them raised more than $120,000. Half that sum was raised and spent by the odd-candidate-out in the three-way May run-off. Atwell received 4,575 votes, Chapman 3,880 and Richard Dorfman picked up 3,433 to finish last in the run-off.

 

Arrows point to city density increases

Cities in Florida are in a man-made squeeze. Past pension deals with unions are now unaffordable without big tax increases. Meanwhile tax receipts are down drastically because property values dived deep for the past five years. And the ever-clever Florida Legislature capped tax increases to three percent per year.

In a late-night swan song at his last meeting, Sarasota City Commissioner Turner was gloomy. “Revenue growth and business growth are not going to solve this problem,” he said. The former economics professor, bank executive and financial entrepreneur’s judgment hung heavy in the air.

“One way or the other, we need more density,” he said. One downtown condominium at 1350 Main pays more in city taxes than the entire near-downtown Laurel Park neighborhood, said his colleague Commissioner Paul Caragiulo.

“The way you get more population is to focus on making this a place where people want to live,” said Turner. “All of your policy decisions need to keep that in mind.”

 

County begins to raid reserves

It was almost a magic trick, the way Sarasota County Commissioners finessed their budget top line for next year. It started at a capital projects workshop where $50.5 million in projects were unfunded over the next five years. Even County Administrator Randall Reid called it “a shocking figure.”

But when he suggested – among other ways – to raise the property tax rate, his trial balloon was shot down by one-two-three commissioners. Instead they demanded an analysis of how much they could cut into their reserve funds.

For years during the budgeting process, county commissioners held sacrosanct a 90-day reserve fund to keep the county going through emergencies and disasters and financial shortfalls. The policy was adopted in 2007 when the bottom began to fall out of the property market.

On May 14 by a 3-2 vote they made it official. They chopped the 90 days to 75 and walked away with more than $8 million to use in the next fiscal year.

 

Sarasota rapid transit anyone?

Sarasota City Commissioners gave their approval to a new route proposed for a super-frequent bus line from the airport to downtown and further south. It’s called Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and – if approved, funded and built – would run down U.S. 41 every 10 minutes. Think of it as an above-ground subway.

The city and county previously approved a route running along the Seminole Gulf Railroad right-of-way in the center of the city. The Federal Transit Administration paid for the study confirming the centrist route. But earlier this year, the city and county rejected it, and proposed either US 301 or US 41 as a preferred alternative.

The county then asked the city which of the two – 301 or 41 – it preferred. The city came back resoundingly in favor of the US 41/Tamiami Trail alternative. If the county commission agrees, it will have to fund the $800,000 study to confirm the US 41 route is feasible.

In the meantime, the county is angling to get the city to put up some funding to run the BRT, unwilling to carry the $1.5 million to $2.5 million annual expense.

 

Orioles break attendance record

Sarasota’s spring training team the Baltimore Orioles played 17 home games this year and drew more than 120,000 fans to Ed Smith Stadium. It is a record for the city, which has been hosting spring training since 1924.

The team then announced it is booking six youth baseball tournaments over the summer at Ed Smith and the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex. “This is the largest state championship in summer baseball,” said Matt Bomeisl with the sponsor Project Wire. “Between the Buck O’Neil complex and the Ed Smith complex, Sarasota is a great location. The Orioles have first class venues that help us draw additional teams from out of the area.”

Sarasota will not lack for top-notch baseball this summer.

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