Transportation Funding for Parks?

Guest Correspondence

If you had the opportunity to spend $900,000 worth of money on transportation expansion, how would you spend it?

Would you use it to add more bike lanes on existing roads? Lay down more sidewalks? Would you use it to expand our road grid system? How about extending Lakewood Ranch Boulevard? Or, would you forget daily mobility and instead use it to expand a park?

Most are shocked when they hear the real-life answer to this question, which occurred when the 2018 budget was approved by Sarasota County. Sarasota County has decided a park is the best use of almost a million dollars of transportation money.

The Legacy Trail is a very important project. It is a wonderful amenity that deserves attention and focus to make sure we are prepared for any state and federal funding availability to expand this park both north and south. But a park should not take away funding for important infrastructure. Projects that affect real-life daily mobility should never take a back seat to an amenity.

But that is what has happened.

The 2018 budget has allocations totaling $8 million for the Legacy Trail expansion. Much of the funding comes from Neighborhood Parkland funding and Park Impact fees. This appears to be an appropriate use of that funding. 

But, there is an allocation of $900,000 from mobility fees, fees that are intended to increase your ability to get around. This allocation of mobility fees is made up of $730,000 from the North County Mobility Fee District and $170,000 from the Central County District.

In the news, we recently heard about the lack of county funding available for acquiring the property for the Lakewood Ranch Boulevard extension to Fruitville Road, jeopardizing the project. This is going to be a reliever road to help improve the grid system, and it lies right within the North County Mobility Fee District. That’s right, the same district where $730,000 will be used for a park and not the road.

The prioritization on how to spend these dollars is out of whack.

In the zeal of the county to complete a high commission priority amenity, they have ignored the basic rules of government budgeting: Health, safety, and welfare first, infrastructure second, and amenities last.

The Sarasota County Citizen’s Survey administered annually through the University of South Florida addressed budget prioritization in 2017. The survey participants agree with me. “When asked for their input as to how County officials should allocate budgetary resources, over half of the survey respondents gave 10 (most important) rating to just one category—‘public transportation/traffic congestion’ (54 percent)…” 

The survey was clear about how the public felt about the priorities of parks in comparison, “…fewer respondents identify leisure-related budget items as top priority expenditure items—“parks and preserves” (16 percent)…”

This budget prioritization error needs to be fixed immediately. The Commission should issue instructions to staff to revisit this budget year and examine the budget for prioritization problems like this. 

The Commission is about to enter its annual retreat to set the budget parameters for next year. To avoid these problems this next year they need to go back to basics with county staff. They should be clear in their prioritization of the budget, their unwillingness to have government grow faster than property values, and a general understanding that amenities are nice, but they don’t take priority over infrastructure.

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

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