Charter Referendum 2024

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The Nov. 5 referendum question will ask:

Florida local governments may issue certain debt for various governmental purposes. The City Charter requires voter approval before the City issues any debt. Should the Charter be amended, allowing the City to issue debt payable from funds other than property taxes without voter approval: (i) for safety and public health projects with a maximum principal amount of $15,000,000, increasing annually based on a cost index; and (ii) to respond to a declared emergency or disaster?

History

How we got here

Since North Port was incorporated in 1959, the City Charter – basically our constitution – has prohibited the City from borrowing any money to fund large projects without voter approval. This led previous City leaders to take a “pay as you go” approach to our capital projects and infrastructure needs: Save up the millions of dollars needed to fully fund a project before starting it.

This could cause projects to stretch on for years and balloon in costs. A good example is the Price Boulevard Widening Project. This is a project that has been needed for many years. However, as the City worked to save money for the improvement, the project costs continued to rise. Initially, the widening project was estimated to cost less than $3 million, but a decade later, the estimate has grown to $80 million. Congestion on Price Boulevard has been an ongoing issue, but we were not able to address it until voters approved up to $80 million in bonds to pay for this project in November 2022.

It's true that the City could borrow money to pay for a specific project with approval from voters in a referendum, but that isn’t ideal. Referendums typically only occur every two years with the general election cycle. This can delay our ability to address critical needs, especially during an emergency. Off-cycle elections can be expensive for taxpayers (estimated at $100,000 or more) and run the risk of lower voter participation.

Pay as you go

‘Pay as you go’ problems

The “pay as you go” approach is a lot like a family having to save up to pay for a new house in full up front instead of taking out a mortgage and spreading out the cost over many years. There are a few problems with the “pay as you go” method:

  • It’s not sustainable for a growing city
  • It’s expensive due to rising costs
  • It places the burden on current taxpayers, rather than future residents
  • It causes delays in projects
  • It leads to aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance

As North Port has grown, so have our needs. We have more than $1.8 billion in essential capital projects needed over the next 15 years that are currently unfunded. With the ability to borrow money as it’s needed, the City can start to get the work done.

Why change?

Why change the charter?

Based on research completed by our team and outside financial advisors, North Port is the only city out of 411 in the state of Florida whose charter prohibits the borrowing of money or incurring any debt without voter approval. Our sister General Development Corporation cities in Florida (Palm Bay, Port Charlotte and Port St. Lucie) all updated their charters decades ago to remove the restrictions about borrowing money. Every other Florida city and county routinely relies on borrowing – in the form of bonds, loans, leases or other borrowing instruments – to pay for growth and infrastructure needs and keep their community going.

Our charter limitations mean that each time a large infrastructure project is needed, the City has to prepare a voter referendum and get approval from a majority of North Port voters in a general election occurring every two years, or in a special election at an added cost of $100,000 or more. These restrictions can delay the City from addressing emergencies or critical needs and can lead to higher costs. 

Also, due to our charter’s restrictions on borrowing, the City has not been able to meet timelines for state, federal or similar loans that had very low to no interest rates. We are missing out on opportunities for “free money” that could be used to pay for expensive infrastructure projects.

With the ability to borrow money as needed for emergencies, essential infrastructure or to meet regulatory requirements, the City could invest in these projects and address current needs in a timely manner without adding burden to our taxpayers. The costs can be spread out among current and future residents.

The proposed charter change only applies to revenue bonds (to be paid from identified revenue streams) and not general obligation bonds that are paid with property taxes.

Current needs

Roads & Bridges

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Our roads and bridges need to be maintained, upgraded and expanded to keep traffic moving and provide safe and reliable evacuation routes.

Water Control Structures

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North Port has dozens of aging water control structures that need to be replaced in order to prevent flooding and help keep stormwater flowing safely across the city in the rainy season and during storm events.

Public Safety Facilities

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New fire stations and police facilities will need to be built to provide adequate public safety across our 104 square miles.

Water & Wastewater

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Clean, safe and reliable drinking water and wastewater services that conform with federal health, safety and environmental standards are needed for both current and future residents.

Solid Waste Transfer Station

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A transfer station is needed to help efficiently manage garbage, keep Solid Waste assessments steady for homeowners and keep the city clean and free of debris.

Unfunded CIP projects – next 15 years

Department Project Amount
Police Driving Track $27,000,000
Police New Police Headquarters & EOC Building $104,647,800
Police Public Safety Training Complex/Shoot House $850,000
Police Outdoor Gun Range $120,000
Police Command Bus $1,800,000
I.T. Replacement of MiTel Phone System City Wide FY25 $700,000
I.T. Replacement of IT SAN equipment FY27 $700,000
I.T. Replacement of IT SAN equipment FY32 $800,000
I.T. UPS Replacement FY32 $150,000
I.T. Phone System Replacement FY35 $800,000
I.T. Replacement of IT SAN equipment FY37 $800,000
Public Works Water Control Structures - FY29-39 for 2 structures annually $80,000,000
Public Works Bridges - FY29-39 for 2 structures annually $80,000,000
Public Works Fleet Garage - 2 needed $40,000,000
Public Works Solid Waste Transfer Station $15,000,000
Public Works Price Widening Phase III - Toledo Blade Blvd. to Orlando Blvd. $154,000,000
Public Works General Government Buildings $25,000,000
Development Services Remodel of Current NPPD Headquarters $5,000,000
Utilities Long Term Water Supply $200,000,000
Utilities Water/Waste Water Expansion in Neighborhoods $1,000,000,000
Fire Rescue Future Fire Station A - FY25-27 $4,752,000
Fire Rescue Storage Facility - Logistics - FY30 $1,541,724
Fire Rescue Training Facility Buildout (FD Portion) - FY30 $10,000,000
Fire Rescue Future Fire Station (B) - FY 31-32 $2,775,481
Fire Rescue Future Fire Station (C) - FY34 $14,415,718
Fire Rescue Fire Truck (C) - FY34 $3,000,000
Fire Rescue Ambulance (C) - FY34 $1,100,000
Fire Rescue Future Fire Station (D) - FY37 $3,487,995
Fire Rescue Future Fire Station (E) - FY41 $20,284,363
Fire Rescue Fire Truck (E) - FY41 $4,100,000
Fire Rescue Ambulance (E) - FY41 $1,700,000
Parks Phased ADA Transition Plan - FY26-FY28 $300,000
Parks Circle of Honor - FY25 $400,000
Parks Narramore Field Renovations - FY26 $50,000
Parks Pine Park Playground Replacement - FY25 $50,000
Parks Park Maintenance Building/Complex - FY25-26 $4,800,000
Parks Hope Park Playground Replacement - FY25 $300,000
Parks Park Rules Signage - FY27 $200,000
Parks Labrea Park Playground Replacement - FY27 $50,000
Parks Boundless Playground Replacement - FY28 $550,000
Parks Blue Ridge Park Playground Replacement - FY29 $300,000
$1,811,525,081

 

Frequently Asked Questions

FAQs

Is this referendum giving the City a blank check to spend money?

No. The City would still follow a rigorous process to ensure responsible borrowing and debt management.

  • Any borrowing or incurrence of debt would need to be approved by a majority of the City Commission in at least two public hearings. This ensures transparency and accountability, allowing public input and scrutiny of the borrowing decision.
  • In accordance with the State Constitution, general obligation bonds (bonds that are paid back using property tax revenue) will still need to be approved by voter referendum in a general election on an individual basis. The proposed charter change will only apply to revenue bonds.
  • The City’s debt management policy will include various measures of debt affordability, both quantitative and qualitative, to ensure responsible and affordable use of debt financing for its capital needs.
  • Issuing bonds involves coordinated efforts among several external and impartial professionals. The City retains an independent financial advisor to assist in making borrowing decisions, determining the timing and structuring the finance. The financial advisor collaborates with the City to develop a preferred repayment schedule, considering the City's budget needs and revenue streams. This professional guidance adds an extra layer of oversight and expertise.
  • Before issuing any bonds, the City will utilize standard and best management practices to engage one or more credit rating agencies to provide an independent opinion on its creditworthiness and ability to make timely payments of principal and interest. Underwriters and investors rely on the credit quality judgment made by the rating agencies and demand higher interest rates for lower-rated bonds. Bond credit ratings are somewhat similar to personal credit scores. Before obtaining a car loan or mortgage, lenders assess personal credit scores to evaluate the borrower's ability and willingness to make payments. A City’s bond credit ratings directly impact interest rates, just like personal credit scores do.

Why do city and county governments borrow money?

According to financial experts, governmental entities have been using debt for over 200 years to fund important public projects like water systems, roads, governmental buildings and others.

Borrowing money spreads out the cost of capital projects over time, so future residents who will benefit from them also help pay for them. This approach avoids burdening current users or residents with paying 100 percent of the costs.

Can’t you just spend based on how much money you have saved up?

The "pay as you go” method, where all of the money needed to pay for a project is saved up before the project begins, is not sustainable for growing cities. It’s more expensive and can lead to high fees or taxes for current residents and delays in capital improvements due to rising costs over time.

Additionally, borrowing enables cities to recover from emergencies and disasters or to meet other critical infrastructure needs through immediate access to funds they do not otherwise have.

What funding opportunities has North Port missed out on due to the lack of borrowing authority?

Following Hurricane Ian in 2022, the State of Florida offered local governments loans with little or no interest to help pay for recovery.

The State Revolving Fund, offered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, provides low-interest loans to local governments to plan, design and build wastewater, stormwater or drinking water systems. Interest rates on these loans are below market rates, and the principal may even be forgiven.

Unfortunately, the City of North Port has not been able to take advantage of either of these borrowing opportunities within their required timeframes due to our Charter limitations.

How are the City’s finances? Are we in good position to borrow money?

The City’s financial rating by Moody’s, a leading global provider of credit ratings, research, and risk analysis, was upgraded from Aa3 to Aa2 on Feb.14, 2023. This ranking represents one of the highest quality ratings, with minimal risk. It demonstrates the City’s strong financial management and fiscal responsibility. This rating indicates a solid financial foundation, enabling the City to borrow at more favorable interest rates, (in some cases zero percent interest) reducing the overall cost of borrowing.

Why can’t growth pay for growth?

We cannot rely on developers to fix the City’s current or past infrastructure problems. By law, they can only pay for what their development specifically impacts. Impact fees are intended to help pay for the impacts of new development on public infrastructure, but they cannot be used to correct problems that already exist.

As the City grows, the demand for infrastructure such as roads, bridges, public transportation and utilities increases. While growth generates tax revenue, it often lags behind the need for these essential services and connections. 

Infrastructure projects are often expensive and long lasting. These projects will benefit citizens many years in the future. Without the ability to incur debt and spread the cost of the improvement across the lifespan of the infrastructure, current residents are required to fund the entire project, resulting in higher taxes and assessments.

Relying solely on growth to fund city development is not sustainable in the long term, because the City will always have to play catch up rather than building infrastructure at the time it’s needed. Economic downturns, shifts in demographics and changing market conditions can impact revenue streams, making it difficult to maintain essential services and infrastructure.

    What’s up with the new Police Headquarters?

    The North Port Police Department has severely outgrown its headquarters on City Hall Boulevard and needs of a new facility. In 2023, the City Commission directed staff to proceed with plans for constructing a new police headquarters on City-owned land located on North Toledo Blade Boulevard. In April 2024, the City Commission approved $4 million for the design of the new building.

    The proposed Nov. 5 charter change would not allow the City to fund a new police headquarters, since the cost is expected to exceed the proposed $15 million borrowing cap per project. A police headquarters project would require its own voter referendum and will be discussed by the City Commission publicly in the future.   

    Learn more about the proposed police headquarters at NorthPortFL.gov/PoliceHQ.

     

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    City Commission Special Meeting

    June 26, 2024

     

    City Commission Regular Meeting

    July 9, 2024

     

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