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Mayor Atwell: State Of The City Is Good

Sarasota Mayor Suzanne Atwell said in her state of the city speech that Sarasota is a good place to live, work and play, but has budget challenges that need resolved.

Sarasota's mayor says the city has a bright future, but real challenges to solve to keep that light burning.

"The state of the city is good," Mayor Suzanne Atwell said. "We have much to be proud of." 

During her nearly 30-minute state of the city speech at  Friday afternoon, Atwell rattled off numerous successes over the past year, while addressing some of the challenges the city has and will face.

"The city has financial responsibilities that we must address now," Atwell said.

Some of the budget issues Atwell highlighted:

• Now that Palm Avenue Parking Garage costs city taxpayers $20,000 a month to keep open due to insurance, maintenance and more

• Consider raising operating millage rate 

• Unfunded pension plans where since 2009, police pension increased $30 million, $20 million increase for general employees, $17 million increase for firefighters.

And some of the highlights, according to Atwell, of the last 12 months: 

• Staples opens new downtown store

• Opening of the and  public housing and retail space

• , which will be replaced by modern loft-style apartments called Kingstone

• Refocus of North Sarasota, North Trail revitalization through construction of , Goodwill and opening of 

• Work on a North Trail Overlay to make zoning and development easier

• Shifting general employees from a pension plan to a defined contribution plan

• Completion of $18 million FDOT project to widen U.S. 301 with landscaping in next six months and possible gateway feature

• Opened an employee and retiree health center for preventative care, and has reduced active medical claims

Downtown thrives in part to having 2,400 businesses operating within a mile radius of it and 23,000 employees work at those businesses, Atwell said, but not enough people know about Main Street Sarasota.

"Our Bayfront attracts 1 million people, yet unbelievably, most people don't know that downtown Sarasota exists," she said, pointing to a study on pedestrian behavior. "U.S. 41 remains a barrier, and that's why the city commission is continuing to pursue the possibility of slowing down traffic through the strategic use of roundabouts and perhaps other techniques."

But the key, is to make crossing U.S. 41 pedestrian friendly to get those people across the road into the heart of downtown, she added. 

Though challenges persist, Atwell does not want to see the city cut staff any more as staff has reduced by 24 percent in the last four years. A four-month hiring freeze is in place now to help save the city $500,000.

"Cutting staff means reducing services," she said. "To make further cuts would harm the organization and demoralize the remaining staff facing no cost of living increase in three years, but continually heavy workload."

Commissioner Terry Turner said the staff has worked willingly and impressively with the challenges they faced. 

"I'm sorry we couldn't be more generous with their compensation," Turner said. 

 Turner added that he thinks this budget will be the final year where the city can offer the same level of efficient services as it has in the past.

 

The future: 

• Street Team partnership with will be launched soon to give homeless the opportunity to earn paychecks and give a new start to their lives.

• Transform a city-owned property into a day facility for homeless for job skills, training and recreation.

• More water, sewer mains will be replaced throughout the city and outside city limits will continue thanks being funded from the $20 million sell of Hi-Hat Ranch east of Interstate 75 on Fruitville Road where the city sprayed waste water. 

• for "many more months" for the greater good of the community.

• Ringling Boulevard roundabouts at Pineapple and Palm avenues to be completed and open to traffic on June 15.

• Landscape enhancements downtown could possibly start within next six months.

• Anticipate a resolution to the

• Appoint a

"There is no other place like the City of Sarasota," Atwell said. "Let's shepherd this city we love through these tough times and build an even stronger understanding of why we ought to live and work here."

CHIME IN: What's your state of the city? What's the best that Sarasota has done in the last year? What could be improved upon?

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