County commissioners ask staff to check on potential of less expensive bus shelter options on the Venice Bypass and on South Tamiami Trail, thanks to state collaboration; more information sought about work schedule for the jail
Consternation over the $40,000 cost of a Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) bus shelter figuratively raised its head again last week as the Sarasota County Commission reviewed capital projects that will be funded over the next five years by its Surtax 3 program.
The 1-cent surtax was approved by voters in November 2007, with collections having begun on Sept. 1, 2009, Shannon LaFon of the Office of Financial Management explained to the commissioners during their March 30 budget workshop. Revenue will continue to be collected through Dec. 31, 2024, providing funding for a wide variety of projects, she added. Although the recession resulted in less money coming in from the tax in the first few years, revenue has been increasing more recently, she pointed out. In the 2017 fiscal year, $2.7 million will be available, LaFon continued, with $19.1 million altogether expected for Fiscal Years 2017 through 2021. The borrowing capacity pegged to the FY 2017 revenue is $12 million, according to a slide presented to the board.
As Spencer Anderson, senior manager in the Public Works Department, began discussing funding allocated for bus shelters, he noted that a total of 60 new facilities are planned over the next five fiscal years.
Commissioner Christine Robinson was the first board member to pose a question: Had staff had made sure that no permanent shelters were planned close to existing ones? She pointed out that after a comprehensive operations analysis for SCAT is completed later this year, the anticipation is that some bus stops will be consolidated, primarily those “within walking distance of each other” on U.S. 41. “I just want to make sure … that we’re not putting [new shelters] in places where we’re going to end up taking them out,” she summed up her concern.
“Most certainly,” Anderson replied.
“I’d like to see where those shelters are,” Commissioner Carolyn Mason added, requesting a map with the locations marked. “I think that might be of interest to the others,” Mason said, referring to her colleagues.
“The department will respond,” County Administrator Tom Harmer replied. SCAT Director Rocky Burke was not present for that part of the discussion.
Then Commissioner Charles Hines brought up the cost of the shelters.
“A very round number,” Anderson said, would be “roughly $40,000” for each one. “We’re doing what we can to minimize those costs,” Anderson told the board.
“That figure “shocked the conscience when we heard that three years ago from Glama [Carter, then the SCAT manager],” Hines replied. Is that still the average cost per shelter, Hines asked.
The expense depends on the location, Anderson told Hines.
County ownership of the right of way and the need for pads to make the shelters compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, for example, are factors in the equation, Hines said, referencing that earlier discussion again. “We couldn’t understand it [at that time], and that number’s still being used as the estimate.”
Citing $40,000 as an average cost “is really not doing [the issue] justice,” Anderson replied.
“I know plenty on this subject, [enough] to be dangerous,” Chair Al Maio told Anderson, noting he had discussed shelters at length with Burke. “When people gagged at the $40,000, we took pains to say that is the extreme case.”
Perhaps a more positive situation?
Maio pointed out that the slide Anderson was showing the board “needs a lot of work.” He reminded Anderson that staff and the commissioners successfully lobbied representatives of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to design and pay for the necessary pads for shelters and ADA- compliant pads every time the agency undertakes a roadway project. Therefore, Maio said, from Stickney Point Road south on U.S. 41, 15 sites should be ready for shelters. “There’s 15 quick ones at a fairly nominal expense,” he underscored the point.
Additionally, Maio said he had been told that staff also had negotiated with FDOT for similar prep work at bus stops along the U.S. 41 Bypass through Venice. “So there’s some low-hanging fruit,” he told Anderson, especially if the comprehensive SCAT analysis confirms those locations as appropriate ones.
(County Administrator Tom Harmer had noted earlier that the results of the analysis should be available for board review in June or July.)
“It just can’t be this few shelters each year,” Maio told Anderson, referring to the slide once more. “We will never catch up [at that rate].”
In May 2015, Burke reported that the county had 2,044 bus stops. During an update to the county’s Tourist Development Council in November 2015, he said 22 new SCAT shelters were installed in the 2014 fiscal year, bringing the total to 210. However, Burke noted, 45 of those shelters are Lamar facilities with advertising.
During the March 30 budget workshop, Hines asked if Anderson had an update on the private shelters with advertising, saying he believed the contract period for them would be ending soon.
Anderson replied that staff would get an answer to that question for the board members.
The county contract with Lamar expires in May 2017, Burke told the commissioners in May 2015. Cindy Zambella, the long-time manager of SCAT’s finances, added that it is possible Lamar could remove the shelters at the end of the agreement, though she said SCAT staff was working on a plan to keep that from happening. On March 30, Maio asked for a report on the status of that effort
In a related matter, Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo questioned plans for the purchases of new buses before the SCAT operations analysis has been completed.
Anderson earlier had shown the board a slide proposing the county add 42 new clean diesel buses to its fleet over the next five fiscal years at a total cost of $20,160,000.
Harmer explained that the board would have the information provided by the analysis before it adopts the FY 2017 budget in September.
Air conditioning and the jail
Yet another focus of attention during the March 30 workshop was a new air conditioning system for the west side of the county jail. When Robinson asked about the status of that project, County Engineer Isaac Brownman explained that the design work should be completed in August, with construction getting underway in October.
Sheriff Tom Knight would have preferred the new system were installed before summer began, Brownman added, but the air handlers “are not failing. We are doing routine maintenance on them.”
If the sheriff wanted the new system in earlier, Robinson responded, “that tells me there is a temperature problem in there.” She added that no one wants the inmates “hot and unhappy.”
Brownman said he would verify the situation, but his understanding is that the temperature is not a problem. He had spoken with Sheriff’s Office staff that morning, he added. “We’re not having those failures on the west side [of the jail].”
Nonetheless, Robinson pointed out, it would be worse to have the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system fail in the summer than at a cooler time of year.
“They don’t anticipate any temperature problems during the summer,” County Administrator Harmer told her, noting that he and Brownman had discussed the matter. Still, Harmer continued, a backup plan created by the Public Works Department staff would be a good idea.
When Robinson then asked whether Knight was scheduled to appear before the board for one of his routine updates in the not-too-distant future, Harmer replied that he did not believe such an appearance was scheduled prior to Knight’s presentation of his FY 2017 budget, which would be in June.
“I’d like an update to occur with him present, please,” Robinson told Harmer, referring to the air conditioning work. “Obviously, I’m not summoning the sheriff here,” she added with a chuckle, “[but] I’d like to talk with him about [the situation in the west jail].”