City Commission approves formal request for County Commission to turn over $4 million in city impact fee revenue for roundabout at Gulfstream Avenue

Other April 20 business items continued until May 4, though vice mayor protests that Van Wezel air conditioning issue needs immediate attention

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall needs a back-up ‘chiller’ to ensure the facility remains air-conditioned, City Manager Tom Barwin says. File photo

Given continuing concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, the Sarasota city commissioners this week concurred with Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch to take steps to “vastly shorten” their regular meeting.

As a result, only one item of the 15 on the board’s two Consent Agendas of routine business matters won approval. The commissioners took two 4-1 votes to continue all the rest of the items until their May 4 meeting.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie cast the “No” votes, saying she believed the board members should address a proposal by City Manager Tom Barwin to purchase a new “chiller” for the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. That equipment was priced at $493,316.

One item related to that initiative was on Consent Agenda No. 1, while a related item was on Consent Agenda No. 2.

The chiller issue was one of the reasons Commissioner Hagen Brody told his colleagues that he had chosen to be present in the City Commission Chambers on April 10, in spite of agreeing during an April 6 workshop that he would participate in the session by telephone — along with all his colleagues except Ahearn-Koch. Brody and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown sat on either end of the dais, with Ahearn-Koch in the center. City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs sat at the table facing the dais, where speakers normally take chairs to address the board.

When Ahearn-Koch offered Brody time to explain why he wanted to be present physically, he responded in part, “We should be … reining in the city manager’s compulsive and non-COVID-related, wasteful spending …”
Instead of putting on the April 20 agenda a discussion Brody said he had sought for weeks — focused on how to help small businesses survive the pandemic — Brody said, “The city manager has added hundreds of thousands of new dollars in unnecessary spending …” (See the related story in this issue.)

“It is my absolute right to be here, so I chose to exercise that right,” Brody emphasized.

Ahearn-Koch acknowledged that, during the April 6 workshop discussion, “We didn’t know what the [April 20] agenda was going to be.”

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch sits in the center of the dais, with Commissioner Hagen Brody on the left and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown on the right. City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs is facing them on April 20. News Leader image

Then, in response to Brody’s comments, Barwin said, “I think in the context of Commissioner Brody’s statements, he either doesn’t understand what we’re doing … or is grossly misrepresenting that.”

Barwin went on to explain that the chiller purchase “is somewhat time-sensitive, [but] two weeks would not be the end of the world.”

“We are down to one major chiller at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall,” he continued. The chillers provide air conditioning for the building. “The older one is 21 years old,” Barwin added. “If that remaining chiller goes down, we are running the risk of even more expense,” because the Van Wezel likely would end up with mold that would have to be removed.

Without a backup chiller, Barwin stressed, “Implications and costs will be even higher at some point down the road.”

“Now is not the time for discussion,” Ahearn-Koch responded. “That’s actually what we’re trying to avoid,” she noted, especially as she, Brody, Brown and Griggs all were wearing surgical masks, which made it difficult to talk.

At one point, Brown’s mask kept slipping as he was trying to explain the reason one item on Consent Agenda No. 1 needed action that day. When Brown indicated that he would remove the mask, Ahearn-Koch warned against that, so he kept it on.

City Manager Tom Barwin listens to comments during a 2019 City Commission meeting. File photo

The chiller item staff placed on Consent Agenda No. 1 sought City Commission approval of a single-source bid for the purchase of equipment produced by Trane. Barwin is asking that the board allow him to execute a contract between the city and Tampa Bay Trane.

The accompanying staff memo explained that if the city used another vendor, then it would end up with “two sets of confusing brand specific technicians/parts and issues in software communication. It could give us a, ‘that is not my issue’ response to problems and a slower response to problems. It could give us the need to have two sets of technicians working on the same problem and double accounts payable with extra cost.”

Barwin added in the staff memo, “In order to have redundancy, this chiller must be replaced so that we do not have any interruptions during a production. Since building a chiller could take up to 10 weeks and then an additional 3 weeks for installation and testing, it would be best to replace it [this] summer so that it will be up and operational by October for the opening of next season.”

After Barwin made his comments during the meeting, Brody said, “I think it’s Mr. Barwin who doesn’t understand the situation that we’re facing. We sit here not even knowing if there’s going to be a season at the Van Wezel for the next year, and we’re talking about spending $500,000 on a backup water chiller. One is in place and functioning just fine. We can wait two weeks to discuss this.”

The solitary Consent Agenda item approved

At Deputy City Manager Brown’s request, the commissioners did vote unanimously to take a step toward construction of the roundabout planned at the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue in downtown Sarasota.

In an April 17 newsletter, Barwin pointed out that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) had agreed to wait until after the 2020-21 tourist season to begin construction of that project.

Months ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Florida, the Longboat Key Town commissioners had implored City of Sarasota leaders to wait at least a year to start that project. The Gulfstream roundabout had been scheduled to get underway this fall.

An FDOT graphic presented in March 2018 showed the tentative plans for the roundabout at U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. Image courtesy FDOT

Early this year, Mayor Ahearn-Koch received a multitude of emails reporting hours-long delays for drivers heading east from Longboat and Lido keys to U.S. 41 in the city — especially during peak times, such as late afternoon and early evening.

Not only was work continuing on the U.S. roundabouts at 10th and 14th streets, necessitating detours, but work had begun in earnest on the roundabout at the Fruitville Road intersection. The latter project is expected to be completed this fall, Barwin noted in his April 17 newsletter.

The item on the April 20 Consent Agenda No. 1 regarding the Gulfstream roundabout called for the commission to approve an amendment to a funding agreement with Sarasota County, so the city could obtain $4,032,098 in city impact fee money the county had collected on the city’s behalf. Those fees would be used to cover part of the estimated $8 million-plus expense of the Gulfstream project, a staff memo explained.

FDOT will cover the remainder of the cost, the memo noted.

“In February 2016,” the memo said, “the City and County Commissions approved a local funding agreement to use City road impact fees for the Project Development and Environment (PDE) and design phase” for the roundabout.

City Engineer Alex DavisShaw addresses the city commissioners on Aug. 20, 2018. File photo

During the April 20 meeting, City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw explained via telephone that FDOT wants to move forward with the construction plans by putting the Gulfstream project out for bids in September. Therefore, department staff needed the city’s share of the expense placed in an escrow account, she added.

City Commission approval of the amendment was necessary before the County Commission could be asked to approve the release of the city impact fee revenue, DavisShaw told the city commissioners. Because of FDOT’s timeline for the bid process, she noted, the County Commission would have to address the city request in early May.

Both Ahearn-Koch and Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie said they had had their questions about the request answered prior to the meeting. With no other questions asked, Brody made the motion to approve the funding amendment, and Freeland Eddie seconded it. That motion passed on a unanimous vote.

The other Gulfstream roundabout issues

Freeland Eddie did ask about two items related to the Gulfstream roundabout project that also were on the April 20 agenda. Brown told her they could be handled on May 4.

One involves the city’s providing $217,572 to FDOT for the replacement of old water main pipelines along U.S. 41 between Gulfstream Avenue and Fruitville Road. The accompanying staff memo noted that that initiative has been “designed to improve chronic drainage issues.” Those “routinely occur … during our rainy season,” the FDOT funding agreement memo said.

Potentially, the water main project memo added, the city expense might end up being only $197,793.30, as that is “the certified engineer’s estimate for the work.” The balance of the funds represent a 10% contingency, in the event bids come in higher than expected.

That water main project has been planned to start in January 2021, the memo pointed out.

The second item related to the roundabout work that has been continued until May 4 involves a transfer of $1,456,509 from the city to FDOT for “the replacement of old, existing potable, sanitary sewer and reclaimed water mains” in the intersection of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream Avenue. That initiative also is set to begin in January 2021, the accompanying memo said.