Board members tell staff they want options, too, on paying for priorities without seeking a referendum
Late this summer or early this fall, the Sarasota County commissioners told staff this week, they want an in-depth discussion about how they can proceed with some of the county’s most critically important construction projects.
As Chair Al Maio put in on July 12, “I would like to see [this] happen … before the end of November.”
Among the board members’ priorities is a new fleet maintenance facility for the Sheriff’s Office, they said. They also want staff to provide options regarding how to pay for those projects without having to seek a referendum.
The discussion arose as Assistant County Administrator Steve Botelho presented an update on major board initiatives under his purview. He had suggested the board have a full discussion of facility needs early in 2017.
Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out that after Sheriff Tom Knight in early May expressed qualms about the plan, the Commission in mid-May chose not to continue planning for a $170-million-plus referendum this November. That would have encompassed the fleet facility as well as a Public Safety Campus for the Sheriff’s Office on county-owned Cattlemen Road property, a new South County Courthouse and renovations to the county’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice.
However, Hines told Botelho, because the county owns the Laurel Road site proposed for the fleet facility, and the expected expense is below $25 million, it did not make sense to wait months to decide on whether to proceed with it.
Under the provisions of the Sarasota County Charter, the county can borrow up to $22.5 million this fiscal year without seeking voter approval, county spokesman Jason Bartolone confirmed for The Sarasota News Leader.
In January 2013, Knight and the County Commission discussed the findings of Architects Design Group of Winter Park, which had undertaken a review of all the Sheriff’s Office facilities in the county. The fleet inventory — valued at about $7.3 million at that time — could be wiped out with a hurricane, Knight told the board.
On May 18, the commissioners asked staff to provide a more detailed breakdown of costs for the proposed South County Courthouse and Anderson Center projects, after it acceded to Knight’s request not to put the referendum on the ballot. Knight had raised concerns about how lengthy that ballot might be, the failure of county staff to provide him with materials months earlier to address his office’s needs with the public, and his expectation that voters would be considering the referendum at the end of an especially contentious presidential campaign season with a bombardment of negative advertising.
On July 7, staff delivered a memo as a follow-up to the board’s May 18 discussion.
The report says that in May 2016, the cost of the Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility was estimated at $20.9 million, based on a concept developed through consultation with Sheriff’s Office personnel. The figure came from a consulting firm, Atkins North America, “which has significant fleet maintenance facility experience and can draw from [its] national data base,” the memo notes.
In pursuit of an independent review, staff provided three local construction management firms the numbers Atkins used to reach its estimate, the memo continues. Two of the firms responded. One, which has recent fleet facility experience, suggested a slightly higher building expense and a lower site cost, the memo says, but its final figure was about 2.5 percent lower than the Atkins number. The other firm arrived at a higher estimate, based on the assumption that the structure would cost more per square foot than Atkins anticipated. Nonetheless, the memo notes, “These two reviews reasonably support the estimate developed by Atkins.”
Next, the memo reported that staff thus far had not obtained an additional review of the Public Safety Campus cost, which was put at $107.8 million in May.
The figure provided in May for the new two-story, six-room South County Courthouse on the R.L. Anderson Center property was $47.5 million, the memo continued. Since then, staff had asked seven construction management firms to review that project, the memo adds; two were unable to do so. The other five firms provided figures that averaged $395 per square foot, plus a recommended pre-design contingency of 8.7 percent and a cost escalation of 3.2 percent per year. The county figure in May was $333 per square foot, the memo says. However, variables related to the site work will add to the expense, the memo continues, though design options could be explored to mitigate that.
Diverse design possibilities also could be pursued to lower the expense of new South County court facilities, the memo explains. They include reducing the number of courtrooms to four in a single-story building and renovating the R.L. Anderson Center ($28.5 million); and renovating the Anderson Center to maximize the space for courtrooms and associated space, plus the offices of the county’s constitutional officers ($5.9 million). The latter option would necessitate the leasing of off-site space for other departments housed in the building, but that annual expense was not factored into the estimate, the memo points out.
At the outset of his July 12 presentation, Assistant Administrator Botelho said staff felt a discussion during the board’s first 2017 workshop of all the county’s facilities needs, “would be the way to go.” During the board’s December retreat, though, he did plan to bring the board options for paying for the South County Courthouse project.
“That seems like a long time,” Hines replied and then noted the county’s ownership of the Laurel Road site.
“I had virtually the same conversation with [County Administrator Tom] Harmer,” Chair Maio added. With two new members coming on the board in the fall, taking the seats of Commissioners Carolyn Mason and Christine Robinson, he continued, he wanted the discussion to occur before the end of November.
Mason and Robinson are stepping down because of term limits.
“It’s been designed,” Hines pointed out of the fleet facility. “I figured we’d talk about that in September, October, before these two commissioners leave. … I haven’t heard a justification for why [that discussion has been delayed].”
Because of recent concerns about the county’s Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota, Botelho responded, “we felt it might be best to bring all our needs to the board [at one time].”
“Can that wait?” Robinson asked, referring to the Central Energy Plant. “[And] is the South County Courthouse off the table for an in-house borrow if we do the fleet [facility]?”
“Having more than one project under the charter cap would probably exhaust our options,” Botelho explained. While impact fees will help with the costs, he added, “they won’t fully fund any one of these projects.” That was why he had proposed the extensive discussion, he said.
“Unless we play some silly game … and keep each [project] under the [charter] cap, we can do different projects, several of them,” Maio responded. “The question for this commission … is what is the impact of that payment on those bonds to the General Fund.”
Maio was referring to interest payments out of the fund that contains the ad valorem tax revenue the county receives each year. Commissioners previously have pointed to the General Fund as the most “stressed” of all the funds in their budget.
Nonetheless, Maio pointed out, the interest payments would be spread over a period of time.
When Maio sought board consensus for an earlier discussion of critical needs, his colleagues confirmed that he had it.
In summing up the board’s direction, Harmer said he believed the first step for staff would be to prepare a follow-up report addressing unresolved issues about the South County Courthouse and the Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility. It will include information about other priorities, such as replacement of the Central Energy Plant, he added, and it will provide options the board could pursue under the charter cap.
However, Harmer reminded the commissioners that they had indicated recently that they might want to re-order the priority of projects in the county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Among those they have referenced are new or improved jail facilities, The Legacy Trail extensions and the Public Safety Campus. “It’s probably been a long time since the board has really done a top-to-bottom review of the CIP,” he noted. That was what Botelho primarily was addressing at the outset of his presentation, Harmer said.
The board cannot have a productive discussion at its December retreat, Maio replied, unless “this commission gets a report [beforehand] and drills down into it.”
Maio added to Harmer, “We can’t talk about these things outside of these meetings, and therein lies the dilemma.” He was referring to the state Sunshine Laws. “We just really need to get going on this.”