County administrator and board discuss counterproposals to City Commission’s requests
The Sarasota County Commission chair this week said he has “really had it with this smirky, sly way” Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin has represented the city as the two local governments have tried to resolve a dispute over a final payment the city says the county owes into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.
“There seems to be no modification of the behavior in which this whole thing is being conducted,” Chair Paul Caragiulo told his colleagues during the board’s regular meeting on July 11 in Venice. “I think it’s very clear who’s driving [the City Commission’s] policy.”
Caragiulo continued, “It’s upsetting how this has really gone down … almost like someone’s looking to provide entertainment. … I don’t know what good has come of any of this, and it’s very disappointing.”
Established in 1986 for 30 years, the trust fund used ad valorem tax revenue to pay for economic improvement initiatives in a defined area of the city. Since April 2016, city staff has been making the case that the County Commission violated the agreement, because the city did not receive a 30th payment from the county into the trust fund. Conversely, county staff has referenced meeting records and other documents to assert its view that the county does not owe the disputed payment that has grown to more than $5 million, thanks to accrual of interest, as Barwin has pointed out to his board.
The county commissioners agreed this week with the responses County Administrator Tom Harmer provided in a July 5 letter to Barwin. In correspondence Barwin sent to Harmer on June 20 after discussing the issues with his board, Barwin cited City Commission requests for specific county actions to resolve the CRA dispute.
“There’s two new people on [the City Commission],” County Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out. “I would just ask them to hear what we’re proposing in regards to potential resolutions to this.”
Only Commissioner Nancy Detert suggested that she would be willing to entertain the idea of resolving the disagreement by providing “maybe even cash” to the city. However, she pointed to Harmer’s calculation that the 75-day deadline the two boards set on April 26 for arriving at a compromise expired on July 10. “If they can’t resolve this quickly,” she added of the city commissioners and staff, she felt the county commissioners needed to speak one-on-one with staff of the Office of the County Attorney about how the county would fare if the issue went to court.
Harmer reminded the commissioners that at the end of that April 26 joint meeting of the boards, the elected officials agreed to have their managers work out details of a potential settlement within 30 days and bring those proposals to their respective boards within another 30 days.
Harmer did indicate that some scheduling problems on the city side — including lengthier board meetings, with Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Hagen Brody getting up-to-date on issues since their election in May — had led to the delay.
Harmer also noted that he and Barwin had discussed the CRA issues on three occasions: May 17, May 25 and June 15. Harmer further stressed that he had made it clear — based on County Commission comments — that “we were looking for confirmation [that the city] would not be pursuing legal action against the county, [but] [city leaders] have not responded to that request.”
Commissioner Michael Moran told his colleagues he felt they “should not be negotiating any deal under a threat of litigation.” He added that he believes “city staff is using [that threat] to negotiate projects, and I think their wish list is an example of this,” referring to Barwin’s letter.
Having provided the county commissioners a copy of Barwin’s June 20 letter, Harmer mentioned each of Barwin’s proposals, along with his responses:
- Harmer supports extending an interlocal agreement regarding a $500,000 county grant to the city to help clean up the city’s Marion Anderson Place brownfield site. Barwin had pointed out that a balance of $432,127 remains. However, Harmer added, he needed more information about how the city would like the agreement modified before bringing the matter to the County Commission.
- Harmer wrote that he would recommend the County Commission support the city’s request to reset the base year for the Newtown Community Redevelopment Area (CRA), as the city has requested.
During budget discussions as recent as July 10, city Finance Director Kelly Strickland told the city board that because the Newtown CRA was established right before the community felt the effects of the Great Recession, property values have not recovered to the point that that CRA will see any income this year, even with continuing increases in property values.
The tax-increment financing plan is predicated upon land values growing, with the difference between the base year and subsequent years providing property tax revenue for the trust fund. That also was the case with the Downtown Sarasota CRA.
- The city wants the county to make 30 annual payments to the Newtown CRA Trust Fund, beginning with the first year the CRA realizes additional tax value over the base year.
- The city has asked that the county participate with it and the Sarasota County School Board in establishing a “trades-mentoring-apprenticeship oriented job training facility on the Marion Anderson Brownfield Site in North County, to enhance career training,” as Barwin wrote in his letter. It also is asking for $1 million from the county “to support business development and restore blighted buildings to create local jobs and tax base growth in North Sarasota,” Barwin added.
Harmer responded in his letter that he had reminded Barwin during their face-to-face meetings that the intent of the Community Reinvestment Program (CRP) — which the County Commission revived in late 2015, after voting on the sunset of the Downtown Sarasota CRA — has been to fund specific capital projects. The goal with the CRP, commissioners said in 2015, was to encourage the municipalities to pursue public/private partnerships in building infrastructure that would increase their tax bases. The cities must apply for the grants for projects for which they provide details. The account has $1.4 million, Harmer noted again on July 11.
- The city has asked the county to begin making an annual payment of $350,000 toward the operation of the city’s Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota and continue that for 30 years, with a 3% increase each year. [For five years, the county paid $320,000 a year for the facility’s operations; it ended the support in late 2016.} The city calls for the new payments to begin in the 2019 fiscal year.
Harmer told the county board members on July 11 that his staff had calculated that the requested county Newtown CRA contributions and funding for the Taylor Complex would total more than $34 million over 30 years.
The participation of the county in the Newtown CRA could be a good thing, Chair Caragiulo said, but questions regarding the governance of the Downtown CRA Trust Fund, the structure of that CRA and the fee payment schedule were “the big bone of contention. That’s just dismissed [by Barwin and the City Commission]. It’s like we have the attention span and memory of mosquitoes.”
“We know those people and want to maintain a friendly relationship with them,” County Commissioner Detert said, “but what sticks in my craw is until we resolve this, I have absolutely zero interest in tying myself to another 30-year agreement when we can’t even resolve the agreement we have now. … They couldn’t even count from one to 30 and have it come out right,” she added of city staff’s contention that the county owed 30 payments into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund, when the county paid 29.
His recommendation to the city commissioners, County Commissioner Hines said, is to “stop presenting things that have ongoing operating expenses. That was the biggest hang-up for me [with the Downtown Sarasota CRA],” he added. Moreover, he noted, CRA money was going toward overhead, instead of buildings, although the latter was what the CRA was designed to fund, he pointed out. “The city manager does not seem to hear that,” Hines said, “so I am speaking directly to the elected [city] officials.”
- The city has proposed creating a pocket park with 50 public parking spaces on the former Ringling Boulevard site of the Sarasota Police Department, next to the Silvertooth Judicial Center. That property has been the focus of another dispute. The city’s conveyance of that land to the county was one facet of a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the county, in exchange for a county promise not to relocate its administrative offices and the courts from downtown Sarasota. However, City Attorney Robert Fournier says the county never lived up to all of its promises in the MOU, so the city should not be obligated to convey the property to the county.
Harmer replied in his July 5 letter that the improvements to the parcel would be welcome, but — as he explained it to the commissioners this week — “[the city and county] should work toward the ultimate transfer of the property, as originally intended.”
Finally, Harmer pointed out on July 11 that he had noted in his letter to Barwin that city still has not spent $186,222 out of a $250,000 grant the county gave it in 2011 to aid Newtown economic development efforts. Harmer wrote, “I would support reviewing the status of this grant with the City so we can either close it or agree to extend it.”
“It’s a head-scratcher,” County Commissioner Alan Maio said, with funds remaining for both the Anderson brownfield improvements and the Newtown economic development grant. He also called it a “head-scratcher” that the city staff has not applied for a “viable project” that the county’s Community Reinvestment Program could fund. Finally, he said it was a “head-scratcher that, once again … instead of doing what was agreed to years and years and years ago, [the city has] come up with a new evolution in their thinking [about the former Police Department site] as a negotiating tactic …” The City Commission and city staff “need to take the points where we agree and … move on.”