$75,000 estimate for consultant to work on feasibility of adding restrooms to Siesta Key Beach Access 7 cottage met with commission ire

Commissioner Smith tells staff not to exceed $15,000

This is a view of the Curione Family Beach Cottage at Access 7 on Siesta Key. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During the Sarasota County Commission’s May 15 budget workshop, three of the board members expressed shock at the potential $75,000 expense for the county to hire a consultant to produce a feasibility analysis regarding the construction of restrooms in the historic Curione Cottage at Beach Access 7 on Siesta Key.

Ultimately, Commissioner Mark Smith, a Siesta Key architect, asked Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, to work on a revised estimate that would not exceed $15,000.

“I’d be happy to do that,” she responded.

In making a presentation that was part of the budget workshop, Rissler referenced a discussion during a commission meeting in October 2023, after which the board members voted 3-2 to place the approximately 90-year-old cottage on the county’s Register of Historic Places. At that time, Smith told his colleagues that he believed the action would enable county staff to install a restroom in the structure without having to make certain that the building complied with modern requirements for construction in floodplains.

Conversely, Commissioner Neil Rainford cited the need for more public parking for access to the beach.

Smith countered with the fact that public restrooms also are in high demand.

“It would be a big, believe me, a huge plus,” Smith pointed out during that discussion, if county staff could include restrooms in the cottage. “We don’t have bathrooms at any of the beach accesses,” he added. The only public facilities are at the county’s beach park, Smith noted.

On May 15, Rissler offered some background about the property where the cottage sits, reprising some of the information she provided the board members in late October 2023.

This view shows part of the interior of the cottage. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In 2007 and early 2009, she said, the county purchased two adjacent parcels through the Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program, with the intent of providing more public access to the beach, offering extra parking spaces and preserving “a viewshed toward the Gulf of Mexico in that area,” as her slide put it.

The cottage is about half-a-mile from Siesta Public Beach, she noted, and approximately a quarter-of-a-mile from Siesta Key Village.

Following the purchases, Rissler continued, staff worked with Sarasota Audubon leaders about the prospect of transforming the cottage into an interpretative center. “They ended up partnering with us at the Celery Fields,” Rissler noted, so they no longer have an interest in such a facility on Siesta Key.

The Celery Fields, which was developed as a regional county stormwater project, has become an internationally known bird-watching destination, thanks to the number of migratory species that winter on the land.

“There was significant community outreach and public meetings, to develop a plan for improvements [within the cottage],” Rissler added on May 15. The goal was to balance the needs of the neighbors and the existing habitat, she said.

In 2010, she continued, the County Commission approved the resulting concept plan for Access 7. That called for additional parking spaces, renovation of the cottage, an accessible boardwalk/dune walkover terminating at a lookout, and enhancement and protection of the coastal dune and wildlife habitats.

This is the circa 2010 county concept plan for Access 7. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Since then, Rissler noted, the parking area was expanded and the existing boardwalk was demolished. Some renovations of the cottage also were pursued, she noted. The cottage is used for small-scale meetings of staff members and volunteers, she said.

“It is not open currently on a regular basis to the public,” Rissler pointed out.

Following those remarks, Rissler told the commissioners that, after the Oct. 1 start of the 2025 fiscal year, she and her staff would hire a consultant to complete a feasibility analysis and the initial planning regarding the addition of public restrooms in the cottage. That was when she mentioned that the estimate for that work, plus the initial design, is $75,000.

After that analysis and design were completed, she said, staff would come back to the commissioners for direction on the next steps.

‘This one’s painful’

“After seeing some of these numbers,” Commissioner Smith told Rissler, “I’m thinking I should resign and get back into private practice and pursue county work.”

When he first saw the $75,000 figure in the materials for the May 15 budget workshop, he noted, “I thought it was the construction cost.” He paused before adding, “Wow. … I just think that … the building is smaller than this table.” He was referring to the structure at which the board members were seated in the Think Tank of the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota.

“We need the toilets,” Smith said after another pause, “but I tell you, I’m a little troubled with the fee.”

Commissioner Mark Smith shakes his head slightly as he considers the $75,000 estimate. News Leader image

Perhaps staff had paid fees that high in the past for feasibility studies and design work, Smith continued, “but I would re-look at that one, if you could. Thanks.”

Then Commissioner Rainford said, “This one’s painful and getting more painful.”

He added, “I remember getting bashed [last fall] when I said that … this shack … couldn’t be redesigned as a bathroom, and now we’re paying $75,000 just for somebody to tell us whether to not it can be a bathroom?! If I build a bathroom in my house,” he continued, the expense likely would be $15,000 or $20,000.

Rainford stressed, “I’m totally against [this]. Apparently, we have a number that somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, I want a free paycheck for $75 grand to [complete a design].’ ”

Commissioner Joe Neunder agreed with Rainford and Smith. “When we allocate $75,000 for a consultant to do their work,” Neunder asked Rissler, “Is it possible to get an itemized, line-by-line budget?”

Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, explained that when staff begins a project, it develops a scope of work “which can be broken down into various elements.”

Neunder said that if the county ended up paying $75,000 for the project in this case, taxpayers would have the right to know exactly how the money was spent.

If the county were overcharged for this initiative, Neunder added, “I would have severe heartburn …”

Eastwood then explained that staff has to choose consultants based on their expertise for specific initiatives, “not on the lowest fee. That’s part of the state statutes,” she noted, citing the Consultant’s Competitive Negotiation Act.

She further noted that the county maintains what staff refers to as “professional services libraries,” from which consultants are selected on a rotating basis.

“I think we’re trying to justify something that’s unjustifiable,” Rainford pointed out. “This is wild.”

Commissioner Neil Rainford expresses his opposition to the cost of the plans. News Leader image

When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger asked whether staff could explain how it arrived at the $75,000 figure, Rissler replied that she believed it was based partly on an estimate staff received in 2015 for the Access 7 project. The county did not have the funds available, she added, to pursue the work.

Nonetheless, she continued, the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department recently hired a consultant to design renovations of the historic farmhouse at Phillippi Estate Park on South Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. “We needed someone who had experience with historical structures,” she added. Therefore, staff also used the fee for that project as a basis to come up with the Siesta cottage estimate.

When Cutsinger then asked whether the fee for the Access 7 project could end up being lower, she indicated that was possible.

At that point, Smith proposed limiting the feasibility and design work to $15,000.

“I’m in favor of everything you’re doing,” he told Rissler, “except putting that [$75,000] number out there.”

Rainford stressed that he wanted to make certain members of the public knew that Rissler had based the estimate on the fact that the cottage received the county historical designation. Rainford reminded her and his colleagues that, during the October 2023 discussion, he had said, “We are encumbering it by making it an historical structure …”

When Chair Michael Moran asked whether anyone had further comments or questions, no one offered another remark on the topic.

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