County funding still the big question mark for Siesta trolley, beach projects

County staff is continuing to crunch numbers for the phasing of renovations at Siesta Key Public Beach. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Because county property values have decreased again this year, Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson told about 20 members of the Siesta Key Village Association this week that she did not expect a trolley to begin serving the Village before the 2014 projected timeline.

And while the majority of the County Commission seemed supportive of advancing the schedule for renovations at Siesta Public Beach, Patterson said, that project still would have to vie with others that needed to be financed from the same pool of money.

Patterson said during the SKVA’s regular meeting that some county officials had talked at one time about starting the trolley service in 2013. “But the [county] budget’s really not healthy enough for another $1 million a year” in funding for the service. “So we’re in no position to advance [the schedule],” Patterson added.

While the total tax value of county property had declined only 1.1% for the 2013 fiscal year instead of the projected 4%, she said, “we’re still running a deficit budget.”

The latter situation was not projected to improve until 2017, Patterson pointed out.

While almost every other county department had presented a lower budget for the 2013 fiscal year, she said, Sarasota County Area Transit had proposed a larger one. Still, Patterson said, “we do want to provide better service everywhere.”

The county had a grant of close to $2 million for the trolley, Patterson said, but that money was supposed to be used as a subsidy for three years. The county would have to put up about $800,000 for each of the first two years of the service, she said, with the amount climbing to about $1.6 million in the third year of the grant assistance.

SKVA President Russell Matthes said he recalled some discussion about county plans to replace a SCAT bus with a trolley on the Siesta Key route starting in October 2011. When he asked what had delayed that plan, Patterson said, “I’ll find out.”

Nonetheless, Patterson pointed out, the SCAT route that serves the island “goes quite a bit further than the trolley’s proposed for.”

She said the buses that serve Siesta Key “really bring people to work,” whereas the trolley was planned to help tourism, so people would not have to worry about parking on the island.

The trolley circuit was supposed to take just 20 or 30 minutes, she added.

“How important is it, Nora, that we maintain the ‘squeaky wheel’ position?” SKVA member Kay Kouvatsos asked.

The goal, Kouvatsos added, was to have a trolley in service once the public beach renovations were completed.

“It always helps to keep nudging a little,” Patterson said. However, she told Kouvatsos that 100 emails on the topic “is not conducive” to faster county action.

Regarding the Siesta Public Beach project, Patterson said its primary competitor for county funding would be the replacement of the 800 MHz radio system for the Sheriff’s Office and the Sarasota County Fire Department. The radio equipment “was state-of-the-art about 15 years ago,” Patterson said. “Now it’s hard to get parts for it. It will have to be replaced in the next couple of years.”

She added that the Sheriff’s Office and Fire Department personnel had been telling the County Commission that an earlier replacement timeline would be preferable.

Nonetheless, she said, the commission had asked staff to proceed with completing the design work for the beach park renovations, “so we would be prepared to go ahead and do a borrow to fund it completely.”

She said the matter should come back before the commission within a few months.

Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce President Mark Smith said he had received a copy of the latest project design from Patterson. “What I requested was a dollar amount for each [phase],” he added.

On Dec. 6, 2011, Curtis Smith, the project manager for the beach improvements, presented the County Commission with a proposal for undertaking the renovations in three phases. If the board approved funding for that plan, he said, the work could be completed by the end of 2014.

“They are updating the dollar figures,” Patterson told Smith, referring to staff.

After that work was finished, Smith said, he would meet with representatives of other organizations on the island — including the Siesta Key Association and the Siesta Key Condominium Council — to work on suggestions for facets of the project that could be cut, to help speed up the completion timeline.

Patterson said that effort would be helpful.

In May, the SKA, the SKVA and the Condo Council sent the County Commission letters urging it to make the Siesta Beach improvements a priority. During the commission’s regular meeting on June 26, Patterson told her fellow board members the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce had sent a similar letter to the commission.