County commissioners to review potential expense if county had to take over all Benderson Park operations, with SANCA having requested more county funding in current and future fiscal years

Commission also agrees on need to review division of responsibilities in contract with SANCA and to consider appointing a voting member to the organization’s board

Teams compete in a 2014 event at Nathan Benderson Park. File photo

How much would it cost for Sarasota County staff to handle all the work at Nathan Benderson Park — including the scheduling of events — for which the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) is responsible?

That is one question the County Commission has asked staff to determine, as SANCA has requested about $300,000 more in the current fiscal year and a total of $1,205,000 for fiscal years 2019 through 2021. The organization was allocated $843,222 from the county for the 2018 fiscal year, with the money coming out of the county’s Tourist Development Tax — or “bed tax” — revenue, staff has noted.

SANCA manages all the events at the park, which is located close to University Parkway.

In May, SANCA financial documents provided to the County Commission showed that without continued funding assistance from both Manatee and Sarasota counties at their current levels, the park was projected to have a deficit of $903,430.69 in the 2019 fiscal year.

Commissioners also have indicated the potential for the expansion of the SANCA board, under terms of a new agreement with the county, and the appointment of one of the Sarasota County commissioners to that board in lieu of the county administrator.

“Let’s consider that,” Commissioner Charles Hines said during the board’s Dec. 8 retreat at Phillippi Estate Park in Sarasota. Moreover, Hines added, “That board needs to be a little larger,” with more community residents on it. “Everyone who like to criticize SANCA just purely ties it to Randy Benderson,” Hines pointed out, referring to the CEO of Benderson Development Co. Randy Benderson is the son of Nathan Benderson, for whom the park is named.

The SANCA board has six members, according to its website. The chair is Bill Robinson, co-owner of Fit2Run.

A chart in the Dec. 6 letter from SANCA offers this data about park operations. ‘ROI’ stands for ‘return on investment.’ Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines acknowledged that the commission probably had made a mistake in not requesting regular updates about SANCA board meetings from County Administrator Tom Harmer, who acted as the county’s non-voting representative on the SANCA board.

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh explained that because SANCA used privately raised funds to supplement the counties’ financial support, he had advised a previous commission that it would be inappropriate for Harmer to participate in votes on the SANCA board. As a voting member, Harmer could have been criticized for any failures attributed to SANCA, DeMarsh said.

People should focus on the positive aspects of the park, Hines pointed out. “It’s phenomenal for the state of Florida.”

The results of research regarding the economic impact to the state from the World Rowing Championships produced a figure of $22,613,500.

The Dec. 6 letter from SANCA explains facets of the operating agreement with Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Nonetheless, Chair Paul Caragiulo made it clear to staff that Commissioner Nancy Detert should be given copies of all county records related to SANCA.

Commissioner Alan Maio did suggest the board members take care in future discussions about park finances and operations, because he does not want FISA (Fédération Internationale des Sociétés d’Aviron), the international governing body of rowing, to have second thoughts about awarding Benderson Park another bid for the World Rowing Championships in a few years.

The likelihood of another award arose in discussions with FISA representatives after the 2017 event proved so successful, county leaders have said.

The comments on Dec. 8 emanated from a request Detert had made for the commissioners to review their public-private partnerships as part of their retreat agenda.

Commissioner Nancy Detert. File photo

Since she began serving on the County Commission in late November 2016, she has made the point numerous times that when she was a member of the Florida Legislature, SANCA representatives never would provide her with the financial records, in spite of their continued requests for state funding and her continued calls for the documents.

Understanding all the facets of the operations

When the commission addressed the SANCA partnership on Dec. 8, Detert alluded to “lack of confidence, lack of transparency” in the community regarding how SANCA functions with county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department staff in operating Benderson Park.

“We’re past the World Rowing Championships, which we all know was very successful,” she pointed out. “We married [SANCA] on a project that was kind of hastily thrown together ’cause it was an opportunity that we had,” she added, referring to the decision of the Sarasota and Manatee commissions to bid on the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

When Detert asked whether any of the current county allocation to SANCA goes toward the organization’s administrative expenses, Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham replied that some does, while county money also is used for events planning and maintenance of the facilities.

“Do we get the revenues that are generated from [events]?” Detert then asked. “[The money] goes to SANCA, doesn’t it?”

“Correct,” Cunningham responded.

SANCA’s board works with government money, Detert said, “but we have nobody on that board.”

Then Commissioner Hines interjected the fact that Harmer had been serving on the board. (At 5 p.m. on Dec. 8, Assistant County Administrator Jonathan Lewis officially became interim county administrator. Harmer announced during the summer that he had decided to take the offer of the Town of Longboat Key to become its manager, effective as of early December.)

The Dec. 6 SANCA letter provides these figures about the organization’s finances. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Dec. 6 letter offers these additional figures. Image courtesy Sarasota County

DeMarsh explained his advice regarding Harmer’s non-voting role. “My reasoning is that we are a funder of [SANCA], which may succeed or fail based on a lot of things. … It had a big fundraising component.”

“There’s no accountability there,” Detert responded of SANCA’s board.

“It is, in my view, a Sunshine Law entity, and it is responsible for keeping all of its records available [to the public],” DeMarsh told Detert.

“It’s a Sunshine organization,” Hines concurred. “Its records are public.”

County residents need to understand that if SANCA ceased to exist, Hines continued, the park’s operations would become a county responsibility. He added that he was not certain the county could manage the park as efficiently or as cost-effectively as SANCA does.

“I understand that,” Detert replied, but “going forward, I think we need to redesign that contract.”

Maio asked staff to provide all the commissioners a detailed accounting of what it would cost the county to operate the park “if SANCA is out of the picture. … We might find that it is significantly more than the $843,000.”

Hines also agreed with Detert that the commissioners should review the contract.

SANCA provided this financial information to the County Commission for the board’s May 23 meeting. Image courtesy Sarasota County

County Attorney DeMarsh noted that the current contract with SANCA has options that would enable the organization to continue to manage the park for 30 more years.

However, in the Dec. 6 letter to then-County Administrator Tom Harmer, SANCA President and CEO Stephen V. Rodriguez pointed out that the contract “has undergone four amendments since its [2014] execution and Nathan Benderson Park has changed significantly since 2014. We would like to request that we enter into a new agreement in [the current fiscal year], which will increase the funding of the park and update the terms of the agreement.”

Rodriguez added that SANCA “would like to begin working with Sarasota County administration on a new agreement to bring forth to the County Commission in January 2018.”

A path forward

Detert said she had spoken with Carolyn N. Brown, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, to try to gain understanding about the management of Benderson Park. “I can see the benefit of a SANCA organization,” Detert added, because Brown and her staff have so many other responsibilities.

Benderson Park (upper part of the photo) is visible in March 2014, adjacent to the Mall at University Town Center, which was under construction. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

However, Detert continued, “My fear is that we’ve turned over a 600-acre park to more or less a private organization with very little oversight. … I do feel we should appoint part of their board members.” She was concerned, too, she said, about the fact that state funding has been provided for the park and SANCA needs to show a return on that investment. ”I don’t think we’re exempt from that, just because it’s SANCA.”

Commissioner Maio also called for staff to give the commissioners details about clawback provisions related to that state funding.

“I want the [commission] to know everything about the relationship [with SANCA],” Detert continued, “and then decide what we want to do going forward … and let’s delineate the responsibilities” of the county and SANCA.”

“She needs to see this information,” Chair Caragiulo stressed to Lewis.

People in the community have varying degrees of perception regarding the value of rowing events, Caragiulo added. “I was very skeptical of the organization put together,” he added. “In fact, I voted against the last increase in funding.”

However, he continued, he has come to “understand what the vision is.” Nonetheless, he agreed that Detert’s questions about the park’s management were valid.

In November 2015, the Benderson Park website showed locations of planned facilities. The Finish Tower was completed prior to the World Rowing Championships, but the boathouse’s construction has yet to be funded. Image from the website

Commissioner Maio — who served as commission chair in 2016 — explained that he had spent a lot of time with staff, learning all the facets about the relationship between the county and SANCA. All the other board members who do not understand that, he said, need to have one-on-one discussions with appropriate county staff so they can gain the same level of understanding. He characterized each of those discussions as “a download” of information from staff that he expected to take as long as necessary.

Caragiulo told Detert, “You are absolutely right” to request all the documentation about the operations of Benderson Park.

Detert responded that she also wanted to see how much private money has been raised.

“Received and spent,” Caragiulo replied.

“Yes,” she said.

We welcome comments from our subscribers