County must pay $7.9 million before the end of the year to acquire first segment; 2018 bond referendum planned to fund second section and improvements
Although Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert initially voiced concerns about whether the decision was appropriate, given recent county budget discussions, she joined her colleagues on Aug. 29 in approving two resolutions designed to extend The Legacy Trail to Fruitville Road.
“This is a 7.9-million expenditure,” she pointed out of the board’s obligation for Phase I of the project, which calls for the county to pay that amount to the Trust for Public Land on Dec. 20. If that transaction is concluded as planned, the county will own the CSX rail corridor needed for the Trail to reach from Culverhouse Park north to Ashton Road.
The Trust negotiated with CSX and CSX’s lessee of the rail corridor — Seminole Gulf Railway — for the land. The Trust undertook a similar initiative that led to the county’s first Legacy Trail corridor purchase in December 2004, according to a county staff memo provided to the board in advance of the meeting this week.
The $7.9 million will come out of $8.6 million the commission identified in late March to use for purchasing Legacy Trail North Extension land. Still, that money could be spent on something else, Deter noted. “What we’re talking about here is a want, not a need. … I just want to explore every option in trying to fund our wants and our needs, and I just think we’re going to look silly funding something like this if we’re cutting necessary services at our next meeting.”
Conversely, Commissioners Alan Maio and Charles Hines voiced full support for pressing ahead.
“The Trust has done a phenomenal job negotiating and renegotiating this contract,” Hines said. As a commissioner, he continued, he always has looked for unique projects the county could undertake. “The overall public benefit for this Legacy Trail, I just think, is endless,” he added, not only from a recreational standpoint but also because of the economic impact on the county, along with property value increases homeowners near the extension will be expected to realize.
The second resolution the commission approved this week entails a $30.1-million payment to the Trust on May 30, 2019 to purchase more CSX rail corridor, so The Legacy Trail would reach Fruitville Road.
That second payment is contingent on a referendum planned for November 2018, when the county would seek voter approval of the issuance of bonds to cover not only the $30.1 million but also the approximately $35 million necessary for converting the rail corridor to a recreational trail. The annual debt service on the bonds has been projected at $4 million, according to the staff memo provided to the County Commission. That would necessitate a millage rate increase of 0.07 mills, adding $14 a year to the property tax bill for a person with a home valued at $200,000, the memo noted.
“It will be for the citizens to decide on the referendum” and the resulting millage rate increase, Maio pointed out. “I’m told the polling shows overwhelming endorsement of this. … It is a resource we need to get control of,” he added of the CSX corridor for the extension.
“I remember the meeting where we all cut things that we could find,” Detert said, in the effort to free up $8.6 million to dedicate to the extension of The Legacy Trail.
However, since then, she continued, the board chose not to accept staff’s recommendation for a millage rate increase for the 2018 fiscal year budget. Instead, the majority of the board decided to pursue the implementation of a 5% Public Service Tax on utilities. The commission will hold a public hearing on Sept. 11 on that tax, she added, with no guarantee that the board members will approve it, based on discussions during their Aug. 21 budget workshop.
“I’m wondering if we shouldn’t delay approval of this [Legacy Trail corridor purchase] until we decide what the rest of our budget will look like,” Detert told her colleagues. “If we approve this today and don’t vote for any revenue increases, how could that potentially affect the rest of our budget?”
“I can’t envision, at least for FY18, where you would have to make any changes” if the purchase were approved, County Administrator Tom Harmer replied, and then added quickly, “I don’t want to presuppose what’s going to happen at the budget [hearing], as well.”
Later, Harmer noted that the county would have ongoing maintenance costs of the property, if the first segment were purchased late this year.
Maio did acknowledge that the expense of transforming both the Phase I and Phase II purchases into segments of The Legacy Trail could cost up to $40 million, especially given “the pretty substantial bridges over Clark [Road] and Bee Ridge [Road].”
“I heard you loud and clear,” Commissioner Michael Moran told Detert. Nonetheless, Moran continued, the staff memo explained that the county would have through Nov. 30 to inspect the property for Phase I. His understanding, he added, is that the county could cancel the contract prior to Nov. 30, if it needed to do so.
Detert responded that all of the county’s contracts probably have similar language, as that is the case with state contracts.
However, Harmer pointed out that the closing on the Phase I purchase is conditional upon the county “appropriating legally available funds prior to the conclusion of the inspection period,” as the memo put it.
“That offers some help,” Detert replied.
“I don’t want to lose the momentum of this,” Hines said.
“I’m 100% supportive of bike trails, too,” Detert responded. The Legacy Trail, she continued, has “been a big hit, a big success, in my community of Venice, where it pretty much began.”
Ongoing search for funding sources
“Our county is about to spend as much on bike trails for Sarasota County as the state has dedicated to the entire state. We’re pretty high up there,” Detert noted at one point. “It’s not free money. … I’m perfectly willing to go along with it today, as we explore other ways to make [the extension] happen.”
She asked for a report from staff on the potential, for example, of funding through the state’s SUN Trail program.
In early February, the board received a report explaining that county staff and the Trust for Public land were “researching possible funding sources for acquisition, design/engineering and permitting” for the North Extension. County staff had identified the Florida Department of Transportation’s Shared Use Non-motorized Trail Program (FDOT SUN Trail) as one potential source, the memo noted.
Last fall, the project failed to win a SUN Trail grant, but Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham pointed out at the time that the county would apply again during the next grant cycle.
On Aug. 29, Commissioner Moran added that about a decade ago, he was a citizen volunteer serving on the county’s Bicycle Pedestrian Trail Advisory Committee. In that capacity, he continued, he recalled the members reviewing “a tremendous number of resources” for federal grants. Would it be unreasonable for the commission to ask staff for a list of all the grants available at the federal level that potentially could be used for The Legacy Trail, along with those for which staff has applied?, he asked.
“There’s been an ongoing funding strategy with the Trail,” County Administrator Harmer replied, “so I don’t think it would be that hard to put that information together for the board.”
Ultimately, Detert pointed out, “This is not a negative conversation. … I don’t want to be stuck with a trail where we own property that we don’t do anything with for the next decade. That won’t make anybody happy.”
Commissioner Hines said he was pleased that Detert had asked that the matter be pulled from the board’s Consent Agenda of routine business items that day, so the commissioners could discuss the issues publicly. “This is a major, major project,” Hines added, “and it’s very expensive. … For us to carry the whole load as county commissioners is too much to ask.”
The public, the state, the federal government and foundations all need to be seen as funding resources to make the extension possible, he said.
During the Open to the Public comments period at the beginning of the Aug. 29 meeting, Andrea Seager, secretary of The Friends of the Legacy Trail, told the board that the Trail has more than 175,000 users a year. “We have all worked very hard to get to this place,” she added, referring to the negotiations and funding search.
The Friends organization is collaborating with the Trust for Public Lands and three foundations on fundraising, including a naming rights campaign, she continued, along with plans to promote the 2018 referendum.
Seager called the Trail extension “an incredible legacy for future generations of Sarasota County residents.”
Additionally, Doug Hattaway, senior project manager of the Trust for Public Lands, addressed the commissioners, naming a group of county staff members who he said have been dedicated to making the extension possible.
“This is a team effort,” Hattaway continued, with the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation having been involved, as well as the Friends of The Legacy Trail.
“I believe that this is a poster child project,” he added, for what voters envisioned in 2005 when they approved a tax funding mechanism for the county’s Neighborhood Parkland Acquisition Program. The goal of that program, he reminded the board, is “to make Sarasota County a better place to live, work and play.”
During their March 29 budget workshop, the commissioners chose to backtrack on purchases through that program to free up more than $6.5 million that could be used toward the purchase of the first segment of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail.
Commissioner Maio finally made the motion on Aug. 29 to approve both resolutions, and Hines seconded it. With Chair Paul Caragiulo then calling for the vote, the motion passed 5-0.