SARASOTA –– Less traveling, fewer visitors.
Budget officials with Sarasota County’s four cities don’t yet know the extent of the damage to their revenue streams, but they all anticipate seeing fewer funds in their coffers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a significant challenge since there are no historical comparisons, and we’re still in the midst of the pandemic that is causing the expected shortfalls,” Jan Thornburg, a spokeswoman for the city of Sarasota, wrote in an email.
Like the city of Sarasota, spokespersons for Venice, North Port, and Longboat Key all expressed agreement that their respective towns would see declines in revenues.
“While we cannot easily estimate the revenue effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the City has adequate reserves in all funds to mitigate the effect, unless the pandemic really erupts out of control,” Linda Senne, finance director for Venice, wrote in an e-mail.
Indeed, reserves along with property taxes will help alleviate the shortfall the cities will experience.
Tom Harmer, city manager for Longboat Key explained that property taxes are based on values for the preceding year, thus prior to the advent of the COVID-19 crisis. Tax bills for the current year were mailed last fall, and as Harmer wrote, most of that revenue has already been collected.
Like the county, which expects declines in the penny sales tax and tourist development tax, cities that receive funding from the county will see declines here due to the decrease in travel or tourists visiting the county.
North Port spokesperson Josh Taylor point to surtax (penny sales tax) revenues in particular.
Likewise, revenues from gas taxes will decline as well.
“We anticipate that the largest impact will be to Surtax funding as tourism has all but been eliminated during this pandemic” Taylor wrote in an email.
Other income streams cited by the various officials include communications tax, parking fees, utility fees, state revenue sharing, and investment income.
No one, as yet, has a precise number in mind as to what the financial loss will be.
“It is still a bit early to finalize projections. There is typically at least a one month lag in revenues,” Harmer wrote, explaining that it might not be until June before they knew the full impact the pandemic was having on local finances.
This also comes as the cities, like the county, are in the process of budget planning for the next fiscal year, which begins just over five months from now, Oct. 1.
Prudently, all four cities are looking for immediate ways to cut expenses without affecting service levels. In North Port, Taylor wrote, that includes a hiring freeze for “nonessential vacant positions.”
Both North Port and Longboat Key are eyeing delays in planned projects as well.
Sarasota city commissioners will get a budget update from city staff on Monday, April 20, and may give some policy directions at that time.
Senne, the finance director for Venice, probably summed up the philosophy of all four cities best when she wrote, “The City is prudent when spending public funds.”