Majority of city board members also agree to city manager’s suggestion that a pocket park with parking spaces be created on the former Police Department site
Having engendered County Commission anger over their postponement of the discussion two weeks ago, the Sarasota City Commission spent about 75 minutes during its regular session on June 19, debating facets of a proposal in an effort to settle its dispute with the county over a final payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.
With County Administrator Tom Harmer having put the emphasis on projects the two local governments could share, City Manager Tom Barwin told his board members, he had come up with a list of recommendations for their review. With interest, the amount city staff says the county owes is about $5 million, Barwin noted. Ultimately, the city commissioners unanimously agreed on the following as their offer to the County Commission, though not all carried price tags:
- The city and county boards agree that the $432,000 remaining out of $500,000 the county approved for environmental remediation and improvements at the city’s Marian Anderson Place brownfield site continue to be available for five years beyond the county’s Dec. 31 deadline under an interlocal agreement.
- The County Commission agrees to allow the City Commission to reset the base year for the Newtown CRA. Because that CRA was established just before the onset of the recession, the tax-increment financing district has not produced significant revenue to aid the city with addressing blight in the community, Barwin pointed out. However, while County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh has asserted that the county is the only entity that can reset the base year, City Attorney Robert Fournier has maintained that his reading of the CRA agreement allows the city to take that action.
- The County Commission agrees to join the city in making payments to the Newtown CRA, with 30 expected from the county in reflection of increased property values in the district. “I think this will have to rise to the level of being decided by the elected officials,” Barwin told the city board. “I don’t think the [county] administrators and other bureaucrats … [understand] what this entails.”
He estimated the county payments into the Newtown CRA Trust Fund would rise from $11,600 in the first year to about $61,000 by the fifth year.
Both Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie and Commissioner Hagen Brody voiced reservations about that proposal. “That’s kind of how we got here in the first place,” Freeland Eddie said, referring to collaboration on the Downtown Sarasota CRA.
“My preference would be to untangle ourselves from the county as much as possible,” Brody told his colleagues. “At the end of the day … I would much … prefer to just talk about dollar amount settlements [instead of more 30-year proposals that] leave [open] the potential for more litigation …”
- The county agrees to restore $320,000 in annual funding for the city’s Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota, starting in the 2019 fiscal year, with the payments to rise by 3% a year. The county ceased its support of the Taylor Complex in late 2016, under the terms of an interlocal agreement. Then-Mayor Willie Shaw sent the county a letter on May 13, 2016, asking that county funding not only be restored but also increased, because city survey data had shown that 60% of the registered users of the facility live outside the city limits. The interlocal agreement had provided for the county’s reassessment of its financial support if the Taylor Complex could be shown to be a regional attraction, Shaw pointed out. However, the county declined to renew its payments.
Shaw also noted in his letter that the annual operating budget of the facility is $1,641,000.
- The county agrees to set aside funds in a partnership encompassing the Sarasota County School District, the city and the private sector to construct “a trades-mentoring-apprenticeship oriented job training facility on the Marion Anderson Brownfield Site,” as Barwin put it in notes he provided the City Commission on June 19. The city, which is seeking proposals for development of the Anderson property, would donate land for the project, Barwin added.
- Finally, by consensus, the city commissioners agreed to adhere to Barwin’s suggestion that the vacant former site of the Sarasota Police Department — located on Ringling Boulevard — be converted into a pocket park with benches and about 50 public parking spaces for people visiting the adjacent Silvertooth Judicial Center and county offices in the nearby Terrace Building.
Commissioner Jennifer Ahearn-Koch called the park proposal “a goodwill gesture,” because a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and county required that the Ringling Boulevard property be conveyed to the county after the new Police Department headquarters was completed on Adams Lane. City Attorney Robert Fournier has asserted his belief that because county leaders did not comply with certain facets of the MOU, the city does not have any obligation to give the parcel to the county.
“This is only a bargaining chip,” Shaw said of the park proposal. “They don’t have to take it,” he added of the county commissioners.
The city already is paying to mow the grass on the site, Ahearn-Koch added.
Vice Mayor Liz Alpert agreed with Ahearn-Koch’s view. “They claim they have a parking problem … so why not offer them parking?” (See the related article in this issue.)
After the board members settled on the settlement proposal, Barwin told them, “We’ll advance that to the county to continue our dialogue on this in a constructive way.”
“They’ll either say, ‘No,’ or make a counter offer,” Freeland Eddie pointed out.
Focus on projects
When Barwin introduced his suggestions on June 19, he explained that after the City and County commissions held a joint discussion of the CRA dispute on April 26, he and County Administrator Harmer were tasked with talking to their boards separately, to come up with settlement options. Then, Barwin and Harmer would try to iron out an agreement that could be presented to the commissions.
In his discussions with Harmer up to that point, Barwin continued, Harmer had maintained that the county had fulfilled its obligation for payments into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund. “My impression is that the county position is largely being driven by their current financial approach, rather than on the merits or the facts of this issue …”
Barwin added that the County Commission has been using “a substantial amount” of its “rainy day” reserve to balance its budget. (See the related story in this issue.) The county also used what would have been the approximately $4.5-million final CRA payment to balance its FY17 budget, he said. “It appears that only an outside party with expertise on state law, contracts and CRA practices would have to ultimately rule on the legal matter of the 30th payment being required [by the city] if a fair compromise cannot be worked out.”
Instead of focusing on money, Barwin continued, Harmer had suggested the city propose “high-priority city/county projects that make sense.”
(In response to a question from The Sarasota News Leader, county Media Relations Officer Jason Bartolone wrote in a June 20 email that Barwin and Harmer had had three discussions about the CRA issue prior since April 26 and prior to the June 19 City Commission meeting: They took place on May 17 (for 30 minutes), May 25 (for 30 minutes) and June 15 (for an hour).)
Litigation and the ‘marathon meeting’
The majority of the city commissioners on June 19 chose not to support another suggestion Barwin made: that the settlement offer to the county include notification that the city would drop its threat of litigation over the disputed final CRA payment.
When Barwin began reading his list, he characterized the offer to drop any threat of litigation as “signaling the city’s deep desire to move away from adversarialism toward ongoing collaboration.”
“The city hadn’t really threatened litigation,” City Attorney Fournier pointed out. When the City Commission elected to pursue the state guidelines for conflict resolution between local governments, the potential for litigation was just part of the process, he said. (During the commissions’ April 26 joint discussion, the board members agreed to opt out of the state process.)
“I hope we’re not making bad matters worse by having this discussion today,” Fournier said at another point. “[The county commissioners] didn’t react very well to the City Commission’s inability to consider this [settlement matter on June 5]. … Should there be some effort to apologize for that?”
Fournier added his suggestion “that some assurance be given” that the postponement of the discussion to June 19 was because the City Commission’s June 5 session extended close to midnight.
“We have explained that that was an extremely long, marathon meeting,” Barwin replied.
“I do think it’s important that we have assurance that [Barwin] reached out [to the County Commission],” Ahearn-Koch said.
County commissioners responded with ire, with a couple indicating the City Commission apparently did not feel the issue was as pressing as it previously had indicated.
Ahearn-Koch said on June 19 that she wanted to be certain that city staff reassure the county commissioners that “we weren’t slighting them or dissing them.” It was 11:37 p.m. on June 5, she added, when the city board agreed to delay the discussion until June 19.
Barwin replied that he had “attempted to do that,” but that he felt the county board members’ comments on June 6 reflected “some of the attitudes that are harbored about this whole issue.”