City and County commissions agree on timeline calling for another joint meeting in 75 days in an effort to settle the CRA payment dispute

Each board to hold a discussion on its own first, with subsequent meetings of administrative staff members to discuss the resulting proposals

The City and County commissions meet with staff in City Hall on April 26. News Leader photo

They continued to disagree about the focal point of their meeting, but the Sarasota City and County commissions did concur this week that they should work together on initiatives to benefit the community — and their constituents.

To that end, both boards on April 26 unanimously approved motions calling for their administrators to schedule agenda items within the next 30 days so each commission can discuss how it wants to move forward on the issue of a disputed final county payment to the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund. The motions also called for City Manager Tom Barwin and County Administrator Tom Harmer to meet within 30 days of those board meetings to discuss their respective commission’s decisions. Then, within 75 days from April 26, the two commissions will hold another joint session during which they hope to resolve the issue that dates back to 2015.

“We want to leave here all liking each other, and we have so many future projects to work on,” County Commissioner Nancy Detert pointed out, adding that the best option is to settle on “some sort of moderate agreement that we can all buy into. … I don’t support anything that erodes our trust in each other.”

“We can’t go to war over this,” City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell said. “That is absurd.”

In its last public hearing to approve its 2016 fiscal year budget — conducted on Sept. 22, 2015 — the County Commission approved a resolution “providing for the final appropriation of increment revenues” to the Downtown CRA Trust Fund, which was set to expire in 2016. The county made that payment on Nov. 4, 2015, county staff says. City staff says that was the 29th payment into the trust fund, and another was due, because the trust fund was established in 1986 for 30 years.

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Last summer, the City Commission began discussing in earnest whether it wanted to follow the guidelines of the Florida Governmental Conflict Resolution Act (Florida State Statute 164) in an effort to get about $4.5 million more from the County Commission. On March 6 — after refusing to defer to county staff’s proposal that the two local governments undertake an informal settlement process — the City Commission voted to follow the state guidelines.

The board votes at the end of the nearly three-hour session at City Hall on April 26 also included waivers of the state conflict resolution process. The next step would have been mediation, both County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh and City Attorney Robert Fournier explained. “I don’t think a mediation held publicly has a high likelihood of success,” Fournier told the city board members. “I would recommend waiving [it].”

Setting the stage for discussion

After Fournier and Assistant City Administrator John Lege spent about 45 minutes presenting the city’s side of the argument, Deputy County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht took slightly more time to make the county’s case — thanks to numerous questions from board members. Then County Administrator Harmer pointed out that the county had paid about $65 million into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund over its 30-year life. Additionally, he said, the county invested about $1,750,000 into the new Ringling College of Art + Design post-film production soundstage in North Sarasota, and it had provided a $250,000 grant in 2010 to Newtown. He also noted that the city was welcome to submit project proposals to the county’s Community Reinvestment Program, a competitive process established to assist with new infrastructure in any of the municipalities or in the unincorporated part of the county. That fund has $1.4 million in it, Harmer said. The two local government managers could settle on a project for which the city could seek funding, he added.

Mayor Willie Shaw and Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie pose on May 27, 2016, after their election to those positions. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

When Mayor Willie Shaw sought clarification that the program is a competitive one, Harmer replied that it would be up to the County Commission to decide whether to allocate the full $1.4 million to a city proposal.

Harmer also asked that the City Commission waive the penalties and interest staff has added to what it contends should have been the final county Downtown CRA Trust Fund payment, which had brought the total to $5,169,345.48 by April 11. That date was when the top administrative personnel of both local governments held the first session in the conflict resolution process.

Seeking a resolution

Following a break of about 10 minutes, the county commissioners first offered their thoughts about how to proceed, with Detert taking the lead. As a former business owner, she said, she has dealt with contracts. Referring to the differing city and county interpretations of documents regarding the starting date and ending date of the Downtown CRA Trust Fund, she continued, “Where you get into trouble [is with contracts that do not have] a beginning, a middle and an end.”

Referring to the potential for the city to bring suit against the county, Atwell pointed out that “that will result in fattening the wallets of various and sundry lawyers.”

Elbrecht earlier had offered his prediction that a court case — with considerable discovery beforehand and a long trial — could end up costing as much as $400,000 for each side; he warned that if it won, the county would pursue the recovery of attorney’s fees from the city.

County Commissioner Mike Moran was blunt: “I don’t think the city is owed a penny on this, not a penny.” Moreover, he said, “I personally think this was an exercise for some type of leverage or manipulation [by the city staff to get the two boards] to come together on projects.” Moran told the city leaders, “I don’t think you deserve a Snickers bar on this … and I will do everything humanly possible in my power to make sure we recover attorney’s fees for the taxpayers of Sarasota County [if the county wins in litigation].”

(From left) City Manager Tom Barwin, City Attorney Robert Fournier, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh and County Administrator Tom Harmer address the boards on April 26. News Leader photo

At that point, County Commissioner Charles Hines talked of his frustrations with the two boards following the state guidelines for conflict resolution. “Before we can negotiate with you,” he told the city commissioners, “we haven’t even negotiated amongst ourselves.” The only time board members can speak with each other is during a public session that has been advertised, he pointed out, adding that he agreed with the proposal to forgo the remaining steps in the state process.

County Commissioner Alan Maio concurred with Hines about the need for the county board members to discuss the issue in an open meeting before offering a proposal for a settlement. Nonetheless, he said, “I don’t see me voting for — unless I really get my mind changed — some multimillion-dollar payment [to the city].”

County board Chair Paul Caragiulo — a former city commissioner — also said he did not “think anything is owed.” Still, he said, he would prefer not to have the dispute “erode the next 30 years of relationships between the two boards, because we do represent the same people.”

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie said she felt the session that night had been productive, so the board members could begin to “put together our conclusions.” Her goals, she added, are “making sure that the community has the projects that it needs going forward and [figuring out] how can we best accomplish that.”

Outgoing City Commissioner Susan Chapman talked of the fact that the two boards finally have found common ground in the effort to try to end homelessness in the community. (See the related story in this issue.) “That does show that we have the capacity to resolve issues.”

City Commissioner Susan Chapman. File photo

Still, she said, the city is “a huge economic generator to the county.” Chapman did bring some levity to the session when she then joked, “I am so happy that I am going to dance out of here on May 12.” (In March, she lost her bid for re-election to her at-large seat.)

Mayor Shaw voiced frustration over the lack of economic progress in Newtown: “Thirty years we’ve traveled down this path”; yet, that community in North Sarasota remains “the most blighted” in the city.” He added that 68% of its property is “owned by people that don’t look like me. I have yet to see one project … there,” he reiterated his earlier remark. “A lot of this has been talk. Yak, yak, yak. But I’ve seen nothing come out of the ground.”

He told the county commissioners, “You’re going to speed the process of gentrification. You’re going to displace people that have lived here over 100 years, and it’s not right. We have led the county with our heads … Can we lead with our hearts?”

After all the board members had spoken, Hines pointed out that he “clearly heard at least a majority here agree that we should turn this back to our professional staff to bring us some ideas … The longer we let this drag on, it’s only going to get worse.”

Then Hines explained that the county commissioners “just don’t like the bureaucracy that comes with CRAs and the expense of running them,” which takes money away from projects. (That was the primary reasoning board members offered in 2015 for reviving the Community Reinvestment Program.)

After DeMarsh proposed an alternative to the state conflict resolution process, and Fournier concurred, the commissioners began discussing a timeline for reaching a settlement.

“I’d like it over in a week,” Detert said.

Detert finally made the county’s motion, including Harmer’s suggestions about the next joint meeting of the commissions within 75 days.

Freeland Eddie made the city motion, which Commissioner Liz Alpert asked her to modify to align with the timeline in the county motion. Freeland Eddie agreed to that.

Shortly before 9 p.m., the session ended.