Chair Caragiulo voices frustrations about more and more constituents dealing with flooding issues and the need to find cost-effective solutions
The agenda item called for the Sarasota County Commission’s approval of a list of projects for which county staff hopes to win partial funding from the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
However, on Sept. 26, Chair Paul Caragiulo questioned the use of consultants to assist staff with some of the work on those projects, pointing out that the more the county spends on outside help, the less funding it has for actual initiatives. “By the time you get a nice report,” Caragiulo said, “you don’t have any money to implement anything.”
He also conveyed considerable frustration on the part of constituents — especially in his district — in regard to continual flooding that the county has been unable to remedy in areas. “Every summer, I have to deal with a tremendous number of complaints and issues, and there is a finite amount of resources in our [stormwater] utility fund.”
Caragiulo represents District 2, which encompasses downtown Sarasota and the bayfront.
In many cases, Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out, developments built decades ago are in a “bowl,” and they do not have stormwater ponds — which are a facet of modern construction — to deal with flooding. “That’s where the emphasis has to be.”
County staff always has had “a dislike for any pumping,” Maio added, “because it’s hugely expensive, it’s a constant maintenance [issue] [and] pumps fail sometimes during [heavy rain] events.” However, he continued, “some of these problems are only going to be solved by changing our perspective on pumping.”
“I certainly appreciate that,” Commissioner Maio, Caragiulo replied.
Scott N. Schroyer, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, told the board that staff would take a more detailed look at the county’s funding capability and the cost of the proposed projects to try to “achieve a better return [on the investment the county makes].”
“I would love to see a master plan for how we are going to deal with issues,” Caragiulo replied. “I would love to see something that is all-encompassing.”
This is the type of public policy issue that he enjoys addressing, Caragiulo added. “It’s very measurable: Either you have water or you don’t have water on your property. Water is going somewhere.”
“I don’t think we need an outside consultant to tell us … the most problematic areas and how we would even begin to address those issues,” Maio said.
“I would be very happy to help with the data collection,” Caragiulo told staff. “You can do a lot of that by just searching my email box.”
Ultimately — after about 40 minutes of a staff presentation and board members’ exchanges with the acting Stormwater Division manager and the manager of the Stormwater Project Management Office — Caragiulo was the only commissioner to vote against the list that will go to the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) for consideration in its 2019 fiscal year budget.
Working to address the needs
A Sept. 26 memo to the board explained that each year, the commission approves project applications for submission to SWFWMD’s Cooperative Funding Initiative, seeking a 50-50 split of the expenses. The project list for this year totaled $8.5 million, Kelly Westover, manager of the Stormwater Project Management Office, pointed out during her Sept. 26 remarks to the board.
“These are just part of our portfolio of projects,” Ben Quartermaine, acting Stormwater Utility manager, told the commission. “During the last month, we’ve had historical rainfall events, and we know that there are issues that we have to address.”
Staff is at work on projects in South Venice, Gulf Gate and Whitaker Bayou, he added, “and we’re going to focus on the downtown core,” including the city of Sarasota bayfront.
The top project in the rankings proposed by staff is the continued restoration of Dona Bay, at an estimated cost of $2.8 million. No. 2 on the list is an analysis of a Sarasota Bay project that involves floodplain management and water quality, while No. 3 is a study regarding floodplain management on Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key. (See Siesta Seen in this issue.)
Each phase of the Dona Bay project has been designed “to incrementally provide a more natural freshwater/saltwater regime in the tidal portions of Dona Bay,” according to the watershed management plan upon which the county embarked in 2002, says a report prepared by the Kimley-Horn consulting firm in 2007. The Cow Pen Slough constructed in the late 1960s redirected “a significant portion of the Myakka River watershed to Dona Bay,” the report notes, and that has “dramatically increased freshwater volumes to, and decreased seasonal salinities and dependent … flora and fauna within, the estuary.” The project on the latest application to SWFWMD involves a 380-acre water storage and treatment facility.
The Dona Bay watershed extends from the Venice Jetty northeast, through the center of the county east of Interstate 75, the Kimley-Horn report explains. A portion of the City of Venice lies within that area.
After Caragiulo raised his concerns about hiring consultants, Commissioner Charles Hines voiced the view that such assistance in some cases can lead to better decisions on how best to tackle specific projects.
However, Hines continued, county employees who routinely deal with stormwater issues should have a good understanding of problems in specific areas. For examples, he said, “We have too much fresh water running into the bays” and, given the fact that the sea level is rising, “our pipes are too low.”
An independent cost-benefit analysis is part of what a consultant does, Westover explained.
Hines asked Commissioner Michael Moran, who served on the SWFWMD board prior to Moran’s election to the County Commission last year, whether he felt “third-party verification of the validation of a project” is important, as Hines put it.
SWFWMD staff vets projects, Moran replied, as the district has only so much money to provide each year for the cost-sharing initiative. It is important for the county’s staff to work with SWFWMD employees on proposals, Moran added.
County staff had produced the latest project list after discussions with SWFWMD employees, Westover confirmed.
Still, “that’s an extraordinary amount of money for each study,” Caragiulo said of the total $8.5-million estimate.
“There will be opportunities to … maybe condense [items on the list into one project],” Westover told him.
Commissioner Nancy Detert said she shared Caragiulo’s concern and questioned why staff had not suggested that projects other than the Dona Bay restoration be added to a list for which the county’s legislative delegation could seek funding in the 2018 session. “This past hurricane is going to be a big conversation” in Tallahassee when the Legislature begins its session next year, Detert noted. “We should also offer up some anti-flood strategies for funding … because I think there probably will be new pots of money for things that were hurricane-related.”
Over the past 15 to 20 years, Quartermaine responded, staff has “created very detailed models that predict floodplains but that also help us to develop projects.” Those were based on old data, he added, some of it going back to the 1970s. “We are updating these models. … That will give us a better prediction of where those floodplain issues are, because one of the biggest difficulties in designing and building these flood [control] projects is that we can’t adversely impact someone downstream to help someone upstream.”
Quartermaine continued, “The real goal of these projects is to ensure that we are using the best available data to give us projects that we can then go build.”
Commissioner Hines thanked Quartermaine for the explanation. “It just does feel like we are always studying something and then we get to the point that we’re short on money [and] it’s because we continue to study and study and study.”
When he was elected to the County Commission in 2012, Hines pointed out, the Dona Bay water quality issue “was being studied and studied to death, and this commission put its foot down and said, ‘Build it! Take the first step.’”
“I’m not saying you don’t have to study things,” Caragiulo added. “I’m not an engineer.” Yet, every summer, he continued, he hears about flooding in “more and more and more places.”
“We do know where a lot of the flooding is occurring,” Quartermaine told him, “and we’re focusing on those areas independent of these studies, and those studies will help us to determine additional projects. … The [Sarasota] bayfront is an area where we know we can design and build a project now to help flooding that’s happening now.”
Commissioner Moran finally made the motion to approve the list of projects as proposed by staff, and Detert seconded it.