Facility closed in March 2019
Sarasota County Commissioner Neil Rainford won the consensus of his colleagues this week to discuss the potential reopening of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office substation in Venice.
During his report as part of the commission’s regular meeting on Nov. 28, Rainford pointed out that the facility “was closed down a few years back under a previous administration.”
He was referring to former Sheriff Tom Knight, who — like Rainford — has filed as a Republican for the District 3 seat, which represents most of the city of Venice.
Rainford added that he had heard from his constituents about the “kind of commute” they have if they need to file a report or have fingerprints taken. “I think we can supply those services in South County.”
In fact, he said, “It looks like favoritism to the north part of the county” to have the Sheriff’s Office headquarters located on Cattleridge Boulevard in Sarasota, “and I think it’s time we deliver for South County.”
Commissioner Michael Moran was the first to respond: “I appreciate the leadership on that, Commissioner Rainford.” Moran added that he saw the logic behind the proposal, but he also pointed out, “There was lots of discussion” years ago about the county’s trying to purchase a new building for the Sheriff’s Office for administrative and other purposes, instead of having to construct a new one.
Moran alluded to the fact that county staff located the structure standing at 6010 Cattleridge Blvd. and determined, through discussions with then-Sheriff Knight and other representatives of the agency, that that building would work for the Sheriff’s Office.
On Feb. 7 2017, the commissioners seated at that time voted unanimously to purchase the 71,592-square-foot structure for $15,765,280. It had sufficient room not only for the Sheriff’s Office administrative offices, but also for consolidation of the agency’s scientific divisions, including Forensics and the Drug Lab. Closing costs and improvements were expected to bring the total county payment to $16,255,083, a county staff memo said at the time. Staff pointed out that that was less than constructing a new facility would cost.
The 4.25-acre site is only 1.5 miles from the county’s Emergency Operations Center and has “immediate potential access to [Interstate] 75,” Jeff Lowdermilk, then director of the county’s General Services Department, explained to the commissioners on Feb. 7, 2017.
During the commission discussion this week, Moran also told his colleagues, “I think it’s absolutely time [to again provide a South County substation]. … Just by pure demographic growth,” he continued, “you could make an easy argument for this. Obviously, the devil’s in the details.”
Then Commissioner Mark Smith asked whether Rainford had talked about the proposal with Sheriff Kurt A. Hoffman, who won the 2020 election for that position after Knight retired.
Rainford responded that he had received an email from the sheriff. “He’s heard the similar concerns [from South County residents].”
The email, a copy of which The Sarasota News Leader received through a public records request, was sent to Rainford t 8:50 p.m. on Nov. 27. In it, Hoffman wrote to Rainford, “Thank you for bringing to my attention the concerns of south county residents over their inability to file police
reports, and seek other assistance since the closing of our South County office several years ago. Based on the feedback that you are receiving from citizens I would welcome a discussion on a plan to reopen our south county office to walk in complaints and other services. I am available to discuss any specifics again, thank you for bringing
this to my attention. I’ve heard similar comments from citizens myself.”
Rainford told Smith during the Nov. 28 discussion, “[Hoffman is] in full support of [a South County facility]. I think he’s got a plan.”
Rainford then pointed out, “It wasn’t the commission that defunded this location.” Rainford indicated that the decision was based on budget issues within the Sheriff’s Office.
On Feb. 22, 2019, the Sheriff’s Office issued a news release, explaining, “Beginning Monday, March 4, 2019, as a result of continued analysis, evolving technology, and citizen needs, the south county sheriff’s office front desk allocated at [State Road] 776 in Venice, will be permanently closed. The closure promotes effectiveness and efficiency by allowing personnel to better accommodate the desires of citizens which often includes making reports by phone; through the agency’s mobile application; and/or having a deputy respond to a residence rather than requiring the citizen to drive to a facility during specific business hours.”
The news release added, “Following the final day of front desk operations at the south county facility, the agency’s Sarasota headquarters will become the primary location for citizens to visit a front desk deputy. Citizens are strongly encouraged to engage with their sheriff’s office through their preferred method including use of the agency’s website, general email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), mobile application on both Android and Apple devices, social media accounts, and non-emergency line (941.316.1201).”
The release included comments from then-Sheriff Knight: “I am very proud of my staff who continues to look for new and smarter ways to serve the public. If we want to continue to be successful, we have to stay progressive and constantly look for ways to improve. By relieving the south county desk, there will be more boots on the ground and by all accounts, that is something our citizens are always eager to see.”
A priority for the Board Retreat
Chair Ron Cutsinger also expressed delight at Rainford’s raising the issue on Nov. 28. “This has certainly been on my radar for a long time,” Cutsinger said. “I had a lot of comments from my community about that,” he added.
Cutsinger lives in Englewood.
“I’m fully supportive [of the idea],” Cutsinger continued, noting that he had talked about the prospect with Sheriff Hoffman. Cutsinger said he believes the sheriff has enough money in his budget for this fiscal year — which will end on Sept. 30, 2024 — to man a South County substation.
Cutsinger then asked Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho whether the commissioners could go ahead and act on Rainford’s proposal. (Botelho was sitting in for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, who was absent from the meeting.)
Botelho told Cutsinger that administrative staff could request a copy of the sheriff’s plans for the South County location. Even if no extra funding would be necessary for this fiscal year, Botelho pointed out, county financial management staff would need to take into consideration future fiscal impacts. He asked the commissioners to give staff sufficient time to obtain the appropriate information from the Sheriff’s Office and provide it to them.
Then Moran noted that the annual commission Board Retreat is scheduled for Dec. 8. Perhaps the commissioners could make the reopening of the South County substation a priority for discussion that day, he added. “The timing’s great.”
“That works for me,” Rainford responded.
“I think we have a strong consensus,” Cutsinger told Botelho.