Government Budget Season Upon Us

Guest Correspondence

Graphic from Sarasota County CAFR Report

Budget season for governments is upon us and we are about to embark on a process that will end in September with final hearings for a budget starting Oct. 1 of this year.

Before we begin to look forward, it is just as important to look backwards and evaluate how we did for the budget year ending September 30, 2018. Luckily, we can do that with the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, which can be found on the Clerk of Court website. It is a look back at 2018 and how the county did with its financials. 

Karen Rushing, our elected Clerk of Court and Comptroller for the county, and her staff put a lot of work into this 374-page document. It is easy to read and there are great bullet point highlights in the “Management’s Discussion and Analysis” section.

The good news is that revenues are up and we even have some left over to tuck into the rainy day fund. Even the Tourist Development Tax, which was up against one of the worst bouts of red tide in our history, was up 6.9 percent. 

Local government sales tax was up $8.5 million and our property tax revenues were up due to taxable value increases of 8.3 percent or $16.1 million.

Luckily our expenses increased less than our revenues. Expenses were up 4.1 percent in governmental activities. All of us will have to keep an eye on the expenses this year and make a concerted effort to push them down. It is a tough goal considering health insurance, gas and other uncontrollable variables, but we can’t have higher increases.

The real fund that most pay the closest attention to is the general fund. Last year, while budgeting, the county budgeted $21.9 million of fund balance. None of it was used by the county. The taxes collected in the general fund for 2018 exceeded the budget by $3.5 million. 

A more troubling expense is Sarasota County Area Transit. It received a huge amount of general fund monies, $18.3 million. SCAT remains a problem and is a growing expense; this year it is expected that SCAT will eclipse Parks, Recreation, and Natural Resources in terms of general fund expenses and become the second biggest general fund department expense under the county commission. An examination of alternative forms of service delivery is very warranted.

Major capital expenditures included River Road at $27.9 million, the Siesta Key Master Pump Station at $15.7 million and improvements to expand and upgrade the Central County wastewater reclamation facility at $14.2 million.

Total debt for the county went down by 3 percent or $18.8 million. The county has a total debt of $368.8 million.

The snapshot of 2018 is pretty positive. We had a great year and the commission is well positioned for 2019 and budgeting for 2020. As we begin workshopping this budget, let’s remember that we need to plan for the next recession and prioritize. The county should fund health, safety, and welfare first, infrastructure second, and amenities last with an eye towards controlling expenses, especially in SCAT and putting money away for that rainy day.

Christine Robinson is executive director of The Argus Foundation.

Graphic from Sarasota County CAFR Report

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