City manager still pursuing discussions with county staff over a final Downtown Sarasota CRA payment

Another session set for Feb. 14

One of the Downtown Sarasota CRA’s projects was the establishment of a Whole Foods store. File photo

On Jan. 17, the Sarasota City Commission agreed to give City Manager Tom Barwin and City Attorney Robert Fournier extra time to initiate informal discussions with their Sarasota County counterparts over a dispute regarding a Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund payment.

This week, Barwin sought yet more time for those conversations before he makes a recommendation on whether the city should pursue a formal conflict resolution process with the County Commission.

He had met with County Administrator Tom Harmer the previous week, Barwin reported during the City Commission’s regular session on Feb. 6. They “didn’t really resolve anything,” he added, but the men agreed to one more discussion that would include staff from the two local governments’ legal and finance offices. The goal is “to get everything on the table [and] have a good healthy discussion before [the issue] gets bumped up to your level,” Barwin told the city commissioners.

When Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie asked when he anticipated that next meeting would take place, Barwin replied, “Within the next, I’m hoping, couple of weeks.”
“Good,” Commissioner Suzanne Atwell told him.

No other board member offered a comment.

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

Two days later, county spokesman Drew Winchester responded to a Sarasota News Leader request for an update from Harmer regarding those discussions. In a Feb. 8 email, Winchester wrote, “Mr. Harmer and Mr. Barwin had a teleconference on Thursday, Jan. 26, and a face-to-face conversation on Friday, Feb. 3; both meetings were approximately 30 minutes. They are next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, Feb. 14.”

During its Oct. 3, 2016 meeting, the City Commission voted unanimously to authorize staff to transmit to the county a bill for what Assistant City Manager and former Finance Director John Lege has maintained should be the final payment from the county into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund. Fournier had explained during the city board’s Sept. 6, 2016 meeting that the Finance Department normally sent a bill for the CRA payment in October.

Last year, Lege told The Sarasota News Leader, he anticipated the county’s 2016 bill would be for about $4.5 million.

City staff has produced documents showing what it considers proof that the county’s final Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund payment would be made in 2016, because the CRA was established in 1986, and the first payments the trust fund received from the county and city came the following year — 1987. The tax-increment financing plan was set up for 30 years, city staff says, so the final payment logically would be made in the 2016 tax year.

County staff has disputed that.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

After the City Commission voted on April 4, 2016 to send Harmer a letter outlining its position, county spokeswoman Jamie Carson responded to the News Leader’s request for a comment by providing a statement from Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham: “The Downtown CRA sunsets in Fiscal Year 2016, which ends Sept. 30. This has been stated in several previous resolutions approved by both the county and the City of Sarasota and in the CRA Extension Committee Final Report.” (That extension committee, with members appointed by both the city and county boards, worked for months on proposals related to keeping the Downtown Sarasota CRA in existence after the 30-year agreement ended.)

Cunningham continued, “[The timing of the last payment has] also been mentioned repeatedly at public, televised budget workshops and at a joint meeting between the city and county. Further, the city’s adopted financial plan shows city and county contributions to the CRA in FY16 but none in FY17.”

This week, when the News Leader asked county spokesman Winchester whether the county had sent any additional correspondence or documents to the city over the past three months in regard to the CRA issue, he said it had not.