City Commission splits 3-2 on decision
Sarasota City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw emphasized to the City Commission this week the need for extra funds to cover the short-term emergency renourishment project underway on Lido Key Beach, plus the city’s share of the cost for the long-range initiative it plans with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Because of the funding situation, she explained, she was asking the board to free up the $2.5 million that it set aside in February 2017 as an “insurance policy” to try to assuage Siesta Key opponents who have been opposed to the long-range initiative. The goal with their vote two years ago, she pointed out on Feb. 19, was to prevent two nonprofit agencies from going forward with Florida Division of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) challenges.
After more than 30 minutes of discussion, the commissioners voted 3-2 to take $2.1 million out of that two-year-old reserve. Mayor Liz Alpert, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Commissioner Willie Shaw were in the majority, with Commissioners Hagen Brody and Shelli Freeland Eddie voting “No.”
During her remarks, DavisShaw pointed out that City Manager Tom Barwin had proposed the $2.5-million reserve “so the Siesta folks knew there would be some funds available if anything unforeseen happened …”
Leaders of both nonprofits contend that the ebb shoal of Big Pass protects Siesta Key property during storms, especially hurricanes. If Big Pass is dredged, they say, Siesta Key is likely to suffer a number of harmful effects, including significant erosion on the north end of the island from resulting changes in wave action. They also point to negative effects on wildlife in the waterway and the expectation that navigational problems would ensue, as the pass never has been dredged.
In March 2017, the SKA also filed a complaint in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to try to prevent the removal of sand from Big Sarasota Pass for placement on about 1.6 miles of South Lido Key Beach.. Additionally, SOSS2 filed a federal lawsuit in January against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is the co-permittee with the city for the long-term initiative.
During a Feb. 19 membership meeting of the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Peter van Roekens, chair of SOSS2, said the USACE “[owes] us a response in early April.” If the federal agency does not file an answer to the complaint by the legal deadline, he added, SOSS2 will ask the court to rule that the USACE cannot dredge in any area of Big Pass.
On Feb. 19, DavisShaw told the city commissioners that the DOAH proceeding took about a year, “so we’re further behind than we could have been in doing the big project.”
The cost of the short-term renourishment effort, which began in December and is expected to conclude in mid-March, is $3.9 million, she continued. The emergency project would not have been necessary, she added, if the legal challenges had not delayed the long-term initiative.
Moreover, she continued, the USACE has told her that it plans to put the long-range project out to bid in April, with the expectation that it will award the contract to a company in July and work will begin in September. The city also will be expected to pay its share of the expense for that initiative before the contract is executed, DavisShaw said.
Further, the contractor for the emergency project may be able to get more sand out of New Pass than originally estimated, DavisShaw continued, which would cost an extra $500,000. “Obviously, we want to put as much sand out there [on the Lido shoreline] as we can.”
Concerns and counters
“When the [insurance policy fund] was set up,” Barwin explained to the commissioners, “the final [FDEP] permit had not been issued [for the long-term initiative].” He added that the project has “gone through a number of court reviews … [and it] does include extensive monitoring. … We voluntarily wanted to exceed the standards for monitoring. That is built into our permit.”
“The Army Corps is very supportive of the additional monitoring,” DavisShaw added.
Commissioner Hagen Brody pointed out that the board’s intent was to keep the $2.5 million set aside until all the litigation was concluded, as a sign of “good faith.”
When Brody asked whether staff could find the money from another source, Barwin replied, “You can cut other programs, or you can tap the General Fund [reserve fund].”
The General Fund largely is made up of property tax revenue; it is the source of money for most city department operations and many city projects.
Brody said his concern continues to be “disturbing the posture of the [SKA Circuit Court] case. … I don’t want to give anybody any reason to think that we are somehow not … fulfilling the promises that we made …”
Barwin pointed out that if the monitoring of the long-range project — as specified in the FDEP permit — showed the need for adjustments, those could be made.
Referring to the leaders of the SKA and SOSS2, Barwin continued, “They have been steadfast in not wanting to meet with us, discuss with us, plan with us, join in the monitoring effort with us. I think … we’re into reality. … We need to do this [long-range] project.”
The Siesta nonprofits’ leaders, Barwin added, “have put us in a quandary.”
The USACE has called for renourishments of the South Lido shoreline approximately every five years. DavisShaw also noted on Feb. 19 that two groins would be constructed on the barrier island, to try to hold sand in place between renourishments.
The USACE planned the initiative as a 50-year undertaking, though the FDEP permit is good for only 15 years.
Barwin complimented DavisShaw and her staff “and our Lido Beach residents for working hard for many, many years.”
“I’m very supportive of the project,” Brody replied. His concern, he reiterated, was eliminating the “insurance policy.”
A deeper dive into the finances
Pointing out that she is the City Commission’s representative on the county’s Tourist Development Council (TDC) advisory board, Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie referenced a presentation made to the TDC on Jan. 17. Then, Doreen Buonpastore, a fiscal analyst in the county’s Office of Financial Management, had reviewed the 2019 fiscal year allocations of the Tourist Development Tax (TDT) — or, “bed tax” — money the county receives from rentals of accommodations for six months or less time.
Would the city be able to use some of that FY19 revenue for the emergency Lido project, Freeland Eddie asked, noting that a formula divvies up TDT revenue each year for beach renourishment efforts undertaken by municipalities in the county.
The long-range project with the USACE, DavisShaw replied, is “going to take all the [TDT] money that we have …”
DavisShaw further explained that the County Commission has approved a $1-million grant to the city for beach renourishment. That is one item on a list of proposals to settle a years-long dispute between the city and the county over the sunset of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.
(In response to a Sarasota News Leader question this week, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, wrote, “The City and County are making good progress with a Memorandum of Understanding” to settle the CRA issue.”
(Drew Winchester, media relations officer for the county, concurred with that statement when the News Leader posed a question to him about the settlement. Neither Thornburg nor Winchester was able to provide a timeline for the conclusion of the process.)
As the city commissioners asked further questions on Feb. 19, Kelly Strickland, the city’s finance director, explained that the emergency renourishment undertaking on Lido is being paid for out of grant funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in response to damage from Hurricanes Hermine and Irma, and the state. (A November 2018 city news release said the city also has a share of the expense: $600,000.)
Strickland then noted, as DavisShaw had earlier, that the city will be required to match an FDEP grant for the long-range project, to supplement the federal money coming through the USACE.
In June, the USACE reported that it had allocated $13,462,000 for the project.
The city will have to use its TDT allocation to provide the necessary $3,250,000, Strickland said.
Because of the uncertainty about the receipt of the $1 million from the county, Strickland continued, and the need for the funds in the late spring or summer for the long-range project, the city “in the near future” would have to have $2.1 million out of the $2.5 million set aside in the “insurance policy.”
“When is ‘near’?” Freeland Eddie asked.
Strickland did not provide an exact date, but she pointed to the necessity of drafting a budget amendment for the funds transfer, which the board would have to approve.
DavisShaw again emphasized the need for $1.5 million immediately for the short-term project expenses.
“If there is damage to Siesta, is that built into our plan going forward?” Mayor Liz Alpert asked.
“If it looks like things aren’t behaving as expected,” DavisShaw said, “we’d have to work with the Corps and the state to come up with a plan …” State permits would be necessary, she added, to pursue whatever remedies appeared to be appropriate at the time.
“The computer modeling does not anticipate that that will happen,” City Manager Barwin added of the potential for damage.
However, an expert witness that SOSS2 and the SKA hired for the DOAH proceeding in December 2017 testified that the modeling the USACE uses for projects is produced by outdated software that the agency continues to use because of the proprietary nature of the technology. A newer, three-dimensional modeling technology provides more reliable data, the expert said.
(A project manager with the internationally known consulting firm Atkins, hired by the County Commission several years ago to undertake a peer review of the USACE long-range project for Lido, explained to that board in March 2016 that superior modeling is produced by a system called Delft3D.)
Mayor Alpert finally suggested that, based on DavisShaw’s and Strickland’s comments, $400,000 could be kept in the “insurance policy.” She suggested the commission approve the transfer of $2.1 million to the city’s TDT beach renourishment account, to be drawn upon as DavisShaw had requested.
Commissioner Freeland Eddie objected. “My concern is that we’re moving over too much money too quick.” She proposed that city staff talk with county leaders to find out when the $1 million would come to the city for the CRA settlement.
Finally, Commissioner Shaw made the motion to approve a resolution authorizing the $2.1-million transfer.