County board allocates extra money to two South County projects, but cites upcoming discussions that could affect awarding the contracts

The final decision on the location of new fleet facilities for both the Sheriff’s Office and the county will have an impact on whether the projects go forward

A graphic shows the proposed location of the new Sheriff's Office Fleet Maintenance Facility on Laurel Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the proposed location of the new Sheriff’s Office Fleet Maintenance Facility on Laurel Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County

With decisions yet to be made about the location of a new fleet facility for both the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota County Government, the County Commission has approved extra funding for separate South County fleet and fueling projects.

However, on separate motions, the board members agreed unanimously that staff must discuss with them any recommendations for awarding contracts for those projects. That will enable them to decide whether the plans ultimately align with the potential for a joint Sheriff’s Office/county “white fleet” site or separate locations, the board members said.

(County spokesman Jason Bartolone explained to The Sarasota News Leader in March that “white” fleet refers to “all the county vehicles, as opposed to the sheriff’s vehicles (green fleet). This includes our general purpose cars/vans/SUVs, specialized equipment services trucks and emergency services vehicles.”)

The latest issues arose during the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 25 in Sarasota, when Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, addressed two budget requests. The first entailed an extra $255,000 for a project that would add four bays to the South County Fleet Service Repair Facility. The second involved $500,000 more for an effort that includes replacing two 15,000-gallon underground fuel tanks with two aboveground 30,000-gallon tanks at the county’s Venice Fuel Site.

Next month, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho pointed out, the commission is scheduled to hold an in-depth discussion on some of the county’s most critically important construction projects. Among them is the new fleet maintenance facility for the Sheriff’s Office.

Jeff Lowdermilk. News Leader photo
Jeff Lowdermilk. News Leader photo

The commissioners originally had planned to hold a referendum during the Nov. 8 General Election to seek voter approval to borrow approximately $170 million for the Sheriff’s fleet facility on Laurel Road, a Public Safety Campus for the Sheriff’s Office next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road and expansion of the South County courthouse and related facilities on the campus of the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. However, citing worries about the contentious Presidential election and the fact that the City of Venice was looking at putting two referenda of its own on the ballot, Sheriff Tom Knight in mid-May said he no longer could support the referendum for projects involving his office. As a result, the County Commission decided against going forward with the Nov. 8 referendum. Instead, it has discussed the possibility of trying to fund separate projects by staying under the borrowing cap imposed by the County Charter. That cap in the 2016 fiscal year was $22.5 million, Bartolone told the News Leader in July.

The South County fleet facility concerns

On Oct. 25, Lowdermilk explained that the county has expanded its fleet inventory by 10% — 145 vehicles — since the 2013 fiscal year. Yet, the South County Fleet Service Repair Facility has only four service bays to handle more than 2,000 work orders on an annual basis.

“Often, assets are left outside due to facility constraints,” he said.

A memo Lowdermilk provided to the board in advance of the meeting noted, “The building expansion as currently designed will include four bays covering 5000 square feet plus two large overhangs. … The expansion is designed to be able to service large assets such as emergency vehicles, whereas the current [South County] facility does not have that ability due to the size of the bays.”

That means emergency vehicles in use in South County have to be driven or towed to one of the county’s two service locations in North County, Lowdermilk explained to the board. He called that an inefficient process during which “precious miles are logged on these critical assets.”

Steve Botelho. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Steve Botelho. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

In June 2015, Lowdermilk continued, the county contracted with Hall Architects of Sarasota to review the original expansion plans for the South County facility and update them. Given the firm’s estimates, Lowdermilk said, staff felt the budget for the project should be increased from $750,000 to $1,150,000. The latter figure included a 10% contingency.

However, when the county’s Procurement Department issued an invitation for bids, those it received ranged from 19% to 54% higher than $1,150,000, Lowdermilk added. The Procurement Department has recommended awarding a local firm a contract in the amount of $1,277,692.30, he pointed out. Adding in the expense of final design work and permitting, he noted, the final estimate has risen to $1,410,000.

Hall Architects has told staff that higher construction costs have resulted from “a saturated market and a labor shortage, [which] are having quite an impact,” Lowdermilk said.

Therefore, he continued, he was seeking a budget amendment to add $255,000 to the project funding.

Commissioner Christine Robinson — who was still on the board during that meeting — then asked whether it would be prudent for the board to continue with the project before it had the in-depth discussion planned late this fall on multiple facility needs. “The timing is kind of odd to me right now.”

She also pointed out that the board soon would hold a public hearing on the proposed rezoning of the Laurel Road site recommended for the Sheriff’s Fleet Maintenance Facility. She already has heard some public objections to the rezoning, she added. If the board ultimately votes against it, she continued, the potential for a joint Sheriff’s Office facility/county white fleet facility could be back up for consideration.

Commissioner Charles Hines concurred with Robinson in those concerns. He asked Lowdermilk, “Does it make sense to hold this for a minute,” figuratively speaking.

Lowdermilk reiterated the need for expansion of the current facility. However, Assistant Administrator Botelho pointed out that the only action being requested of the commissioners that day was the budget amendment. The contract award would have to come back to them for approval.

Knowing she would be stepping down from the board on Nov. 21, Robinson warned her colleagues that such contract decisions have been brought to the board regularly as part of their Consent Agendas of routine business items. “So unless you all are going to watch [those agendas] like hawks,” she said, she felt a different approach would be preferable.

Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo
Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

Then she asked for clarification about the urgency of the need for the expansion of the facility, saying Botelho had characterized the issue differently than Lowdermilk had when she had talked with Botelho about it one-on-one in advance of the Oct. 25 meeting.

Lowdermilk explained that he meant only that a maintenance facility is needed in South County. He also agreed with Robinson that the location ultimately will depend on what happens with the Laurel Road site proposed for the Sheriff’s Office project.

“If we put this type of money in this facility,” Hines said of the current South County shop, “I think we are going to be stuck then, or we’re going to look foolish to come back in a year and say, ‘Well, let’s move [the white fleet] in with the [sheriff’s fleet on one piece of property].’”

“There’s just an awful lot of moving parts here,” Chair Alan Maio pointed out. “I’m becoming less and less comfortable in voting on this.”
Then Robinson proposed the board agree to the budget amendment but add the caveat calling for a discussion before awarding the project contract.

When Maio suggested she put that in the form of a motion, she did. Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo seconded it, and it passed unanimously.

Fuel facility concerns

In regard to the Venice Fuel Site Replacement Project, Lowdermilk pointed out that the location of the existing facility is on State Road 776, behind the R.L. Anderson Administration Center. It is 17 years old, he added.

A memo Lowdermilk provided to the board on that matter noted that the area “has a very high water table and there is concern of a wall breach [in the underground tanks].”

Recent recurring problems with water in the sump pumps makes this project more critical, Lowdermilk told the board. It is the only South County fueling facility, he pointed out.

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

When Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) staff inspected the fuel facility in April, he added, it found two failing components.

The firm handling the design of that project — Kimley-Horn and Associates in Sarasota — had completed approximately 60% of that work, he continued, noting that the final anticipated expense would be $982,000. The county has $700,000 allocated already, he added. However, Kimley-Horn has recommended that a 30% contingency be factored in, given the stage of the design. That would put the project expense at $1.2 million, Lowdermilk noted.

Robinson referred to the earlier discussion, questioning whether this facility work should wait, too.

“I think we are at risk today,” Lowdermilk said, “given the age of the tanks.”

When Robinson asked whether he and his staff thought a contract award recommendation might come back to the board before February, he replied, “We do not.”

The best-case scenario, Botelho pointed out, would be for that to happen in January. Because the Public Safety Referendum projects discussion will be held in December, Botelho said, the board could take the same tack it had with the fleet maintenance facility discussion: approve the budget amendment but call for a discussion to be held before a contract for the fuel project is awarded.

Chair Maio cautioned staff to remember that the county has many employees living in South County, which makes a fuel facility in that area critical. Moreover, he said, “There are not a lot of places you’re going to get away with [putting in two 30,000-gallon tanks aboveground].”

Robinson then offered a motion similar to the one she had made for the maintenance facility budget amendment, and Hines seconded it. The motion passed on a unanimous vote.