Commission OK’s borrowing for Bee Ridge Road work, but continues debate over Siesta beach

The Sarasota County Commission remains divided over how to pay for improvements at the Siesta Key Public Beach. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Although the Sarasota County commissioners remain divided over how to pay for planned improvements at Siesta Key Public Beach, they voted unanimously April 24 to move up the timetable for widening Bee Ridge Road east of Interstate 75.

The commissioners directed staff to pursue a borrowing option for the Bee Ridge project, so it could be completed as soon as possible. When the design work is finished, staff will come back to the board with a proposal on funding.

“It’s a safety issue,” Robinson said.

“I think the time for the Bee Ridge Road (work) has come and passed,” Commissioner Jon Thaxton said in making the motion. “I couldn’t imagine that road in its present state of affairs in 2018, ’19, ’20,” he added, referring to the schedule if the county were to pay for the work with revenue from a penny surtax voters approved in 2007.

“It’s a bargain to do it today at these low (construction) prices and these low (interest) rates,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta said.

James W. Harriott, the county’s director of public works, said he and other staff would come back to the commission “with the amount of borrow that you would absolutely, positively need (for Bee Ridge Road). … You’re about a year away from that.”

Turning to other surtax list projects — including the Siesta beach improvements, the replacement of the county’s emergency communications system and a bus rapid transit system — Commissioner Nora Patterson said, “These are all projects I want to do, but I also want to be responsible.”

“I think that we ought to figure out how to bundle all of these together that we really need to get done and assess borrowing and come up with a number and see if we can justify (it),” Barbetta said.

The county has real estate worth about $500 million, he pointed out. Perhaps the board could approve selling enough property to net $10 million for interest on loans during the next fiscal year, he added.

Interim Chief Financial Planning Officer Steve Botelho said that if the county were to borrow money for both the Bee Ridge and Siesta beach projects, the combined interest payments in the 2013 fiscal year budget would be about $6.3 million.

Botelho noted that the latest estimate for the work on Siesta was about $18.4 million.

When Chairwoman Christine Robinson expressed concern about the Moody’s credit-rating firm indicating “a negative credit implication for Florida,” with state legislative action this year potentially making counties liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in disputed Medicaid payments, Botelho replied that Moody’s is “down on the state of Florida.”

He felt the company would be fair on a case-by-case basis, he said.

(Sarasota County has joined 30 other Florida counties and the Florida Association of Counties in filing a lawsuit to fight the state action on the Medicaid bills.)

Turning again to Siesta Public Beach, Patterson said, “I would love to see it beautified, but I am not going to support a borrow at this particular time.”

Still, she agreed with Barbetta, that the county might be able to generate sufficient funds from selling some of its real estate.

Botelho said he expected staff to bring forward a proposal during the commission’s May 7 budget workshop regarding the sale of one parcel.

Barbetta argued that the county should not wait until 2019 or 2024 to complete improvements on Siesta.

“This is the No. 1 beach in the United States,” he added, referring to the designation conferred on Siesta in May 2011 by Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman of Florida International University, also known as Dr. Beach.

Thaxton pointed out that the commissioners continued to talk about the beach improvements as a single project, but staff had divided the work into three phases. Perhaps the county could bond out the top priorities, Thaxton said.

“I just think that this discussion is premature,” Patterson said.

“My only concern,” Barbetta replied, “is we have been talking about this over three years now.”

“And I feel terrible about it, Joe,” Patterson said. “I’ve been in front of Siesta Key residents, telling ’em that we had figured out a way to do this. I have real egg on my face.”