Mayor votes against the plan, citing a state miscalculation that could lead to the city’s having to pay more than expected
Given their desire to enhance the North Tamiami Trail as the gateway into the City of Sarasota, the majority of the city commissioners recently reaffirmed the willingness to pay for decorative lighting between the two roundabouts planned at the 10th and 14th street intersections and within the roundabouts themselves.
Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie was the only board member to oppose the plan, citing the expense.
Apparently because of a mix-up that originated with someone at the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), city staff learned this summer that the expense of the lighting would be $540,925.50 more than originally anticipated. Freeland Eddie told City Engineer Alexandrea DavisShaw on July 17 that she recalled the discussion the commissioners had in February about improving the aesthetics of U.S. 41 by installing more attractive lighting and landscaping in the roundabouts. However, Freeland Eddie continued, “I just struggle with spending this much money on decorative lighting when we’ve got so many budget issues.”
(During its June and July discussions of the city’s finances for the 2018 fiscal year, the commission considered several proposals for balancing the budget.)
Taking the opposite view on July 17, Vice Mayor Liz Alpert told her colleagues, “I think that we would be terribly remiss to just put in standard lighting and not make this the best corridor that we can make it.”
In February, FDOT estimated the expense of the decorative lighting at $25,231. On Feb. 6, the commission sitting at that time authorized then-Mayor Willie Shaw to sign three agreements with FDOT for the roadway work, the lighting and the landscaping involved in the roundabout project. However, DavisShaw explained on July 17, when she spoke that morning with the state department’s manager of the project, he was not certain “how [FDOT staff] came to that [lighting] number to begin with.”
A memo provided to the commission in advance of the July 17 meeting says FDOT recently notified city staff that the approved bidder for the project had put the cost of the decorative lighting plan at $1,012,490.09. The state department had “recalculated its obligation for standard lighting at $446,333.59,” the memo added. Because the city already had put up the $25,231, the memo continued, the additional expense for decorative LED lighting would be $540,95.50.
DavisShaw did point out to the commission during its July 17 meeting that the funding the city provided FDOT for the purchase of rights of way for the project exceeded the actual expense. The unused portion will be returned to the city, she noted.
That money came out of roadway impact fees collected under a prior agreement with Sarasota County, she said. “And we do think [the money returned is] going to be considerably more than the [extra lighting cost].”
If the city did not use the refund for the roundabouts project, she added, city staff would have to negotiate with the county regarding any other expenditure of the money.
DavisShaw further noted that the bid FDOT approved for the construction of the roundabouts will save the city $285,877 on the landscaping.
When Alpert asked whether those savings could be applied to the decorative lighting expense, DavisShaw told her, “We can do that.”
Freeland Eddie asked exactly how much the standard lighting for the project would cost. DavisShaw replied that she expected the expense would be higher than the $446,333.59 estimate FDOT recently gave the city. Nonetheless, DavisShaw said, FDOT would have to cover the cost of standard lighting, as that is a facet of such projects.
“If they will pay for the standard lighting,” Freeland Eddie told DavisShaw, “let them pay for standard lighting. … I don’t necessarily feel comfortable with their estimates.”
Projections for project costs always are based on recent undertakings of a similar nature, DavisShaw explained. Yet, construction expenses have been rising, she indicated. “It’s not unusual in an economic environment that we have now [to see actual figures come in higher than the projections].”
Digging in more deeply
When Commissioner Hagen Brody asked for more details about how the city planned to pay for the landscaping and lighting, DavisShaw replied that some of the city’s sales tax — or surtax — revenue also was in the mix. “It was not much,” she said, especially given the fact that the overall project cost is about $15 million.
Freeland Eddie then found the documentation that the surtax portion of the funding was $35,301.
City Manager Tom Barwin then pointed out that the lighting and landscaping expenses “are all being funded from dedicated, specialized roadway funds,” except for the surtax money. “And we do believe there will be millions saved in the right of way estimates.”
Barwin characterized the North Tamiami Trail section where the roundabouts will be built “as the start of entering into downtown Sarasota, entering into the Van Wezel [Performing Arts Hall vicinity] and cultural area. … [The roundabouts] will make for a beautiful, impressive entry into our community.”
In planning for the structures, DavisShaw added, city staff and the City Commission a couple of years ago emphasized the desire for a pedestrian-friendly area, so the board members “wanted to set the bar” with the design of the street.
When Freeland Eddie asked about the construction timeline, DavisShaw replied that if the City Commission chose not to pursue the decorative lighting and FDOT had to end up redesigning that portion of the project with standard lighting, some delay would be expected. However, FDOT’s goal is to give the contractor a notice to proceed in October; the construction should take about 800 days, DavisShaw said.
“I think that Alex has made it clear that the money is actually there that has to be spent on this project or some similar project,” Alpert pointed out.
“I’m OK with this,” Brody added. “It looks beautiful, and we do have a huge problem with having the streetlights in the middle of the sidewalks on some of our major thoroughfares.”
However, Brody continued, “My frustration is with the way we are spending money,” especially the $35,000 in surtax funds. “Something is going to suffer” because of the use of that sales tax revenue for this project, he said. “We cannot just support everything that comes out of staff’s — out of Mr. Barwin’s — agenda.”
“Just to be clear,” Barwin responded, “this was the trajectory that was set by the full City Commission. It wasn’t Mr. Barwin.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch then made the motion directing DavisShaw to proceed with plans for the decorative lighting, and Commissioner Willie Shaw seconded it.