County Commission refuses to provide funding for Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota

Board members agree that it would set a ‘dangerous precedent’ of supporting municipal park facilities

The Robert L. Taylor Community Complex is located near Booker High School in north Sarasota. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota
The Robert L. Taylor Community Complex is located near Booker High School in north Sarasota. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

After Sarasota County Commissioner Carolyn Mason warned of the “dangerous precedent” it would set if the county committed General Fund dollars to municipal park facilities, she won unanimous support from her colleagues on June 21 to deny a request from the City of Sarasota for the county to commit $984,000 to the annual budget of the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex in north Sarasota.

Mayor Willie Shaw and City Manager Tom Barwin had sent a letter to County Administrator Tom Harmer on May 13 seeking the funding, saying it would reflect 60 percent of the $1,641,000 operating expense of the facility. City staff provided county staff with figures showing that approximately 60 percent of the complex’s users over the past five years resided outside the city limits.

While Commissioner Paul Caragiulo — who, like Mason, served as a city commissioner prior to election to the county board — supported Mason’s motion, he said he likely would seek a fuller discussion in the future on “a way to support the programs [of the complex] on our terms.”

In a telephone interview with The Sarasota News Leader on the afternoon of June 21, Barwin said of the county vote, “I just think it’s disappointing.” When told of Mason’s comments in making her motion, Barwin added, “That’s a pretty big statement when the representative of that district [on the county board] votes ‘No’ [on the city’s request].”

City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo
City Manager Tom Barwin. File photo

He pointed out that the complex is “a unique facility in a unique setting” that serves a low-income community.

A June 16 county memo says the 44,000-square-foot Robert L. Taylor Community Complex (RLTCC) opened on Sept. 3, 2011 on a 13-acre campus. Located at 1845 34th St. in Sarasota, it includes a gymnasium, a multi-purpose auditorium, a fitness center, a recording studio, dance and exercise rooms, a commercial kitchen, a childcare zone, a teen room, a computer lab and an art room.

City staff recently hosted a groundbreaking for a new multipurpose athletic field on the campus that is expected to be completed in the fall. It will accommodate youth football, soccer and lacrosse games, Shaw and Barwin’s letter to Harmer pointed out.

Barwin told the News Leader he is hopeful that Caragiulo’s comments will lead to an opportunity for more collaboration between the city and the county in the future in regard to the RLTCC.

Still, Barwin continued, “We’ve grown to very much lower our expectations” in regard to the County Commission acceding to city requests. Of the RLTCC decision, though, he said, “It stings,” especially given the County Commission’s assertion earlier this year that the county does not owe one more payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area Trust Fund, contrary to the research of the city’s Finance Office. That would have been about $4.5 million, Barwin pointed out, which would have enabled the city to continue improvements in north Sarasota.

County Commission Chair Al Maio signed this letter on June 23 for delivery to Mayor Willie Shaw. Image courtesy Sarasota County
County Commission Chair Al Maio signed this letter on June 23 for delivery to Mayor Willie Shaw. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county and city park funding

During the June 21 County Commission meeting, Carolyn Brown, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, referred to a memo she and her staff had provided the County Commission, explaining an interlocal agreement between the city and the county that went into effect on June 1, 2011. It called for the county to maintain and operate nine parks owned by the City of Sarasota, including the Arlington Park and Pool, Centennial Park, Lido Beach west of the dune line and North Lido Beach. It also required the city to be responsible for all capital improvements, including any repairs or replacements of equipment that cost $5,000 or more per year per park.

A section in the document on transitional funding called for the county to provide a total of $1.6 million in installments of $320,000 per year for five years for the RLTCC, reflecting “the annual costs that the County incurred when it operated the former RLTCC under [a] previous Interlocal Agreement.”

Melon Dash, CEO of the Miracle Swimming program based in Sarasota (left, in the water) leads a youth swimming instruction class in the Robert Taylor Complex pool in 2013. File photo
Melon Dash, CEO of the Miracle Swimming program based in Sarasota (in the blue top in the water), leads a free youth swimming instruction class in the Robert Taylor Complex pool in 2013. File photo

The county staff memo says that, based on city finance reports, the 2013 fiscal year budget for the Taylor Complex was $949,955, while total revenue for the center was $579,197, including the county’s payment of $320,000. The memo added that revenue for the facility in FY15 totaled $551,700, including the $320,000 from the county.

In an email that day in response to questions from Caragiulo, city Finance Director John Lege wrote that the actual operating expense for the Taylor Complex in the 2015 fiscal year was $1,138,515. For the current fiscal year, Lege added, the budgeted expense is $1,386,836. “Additionally,” Lege noted, “the Proposed Budget for Fiscal Year 2016-17 is $1,571,788.”

During her presentation, Brown told the board the county does not provide any funding to any of the municipalities for the operation of parks and recreation facilities. If it did contribute to the RLTCC, she added, the money would have to come out of the county’s General Fund, which “is the most constrained revenue source,” as county staff has had to continue to use money from its “rainy day” reserve to balance budgets over the past several years as a consequence of the Great Recession. (See the related story in this issue.)

County commissioner frustrations

Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo
Commissioner Carolyn Mason. File photo

After Brown completed her comments, Mason cited her concern that if the board chose to “do what the city is asking, it would set a really dangerous precedent. Like Carolyn said, it has General Fund implications.”

Commissioner Christine Robinson explained that she was relatively new on the county board when the June 2011 interlocal agreement was signed. It was a reaction, she pointed out, to “how badly we were getting burned with new [municipal] facilities.” Cities were constructing new parks infrastructure, she added, and expecting the county to maintain them without a concern about the impact ongoing operations would have on the county’s budget.

The decision to provide the specific funding to the RLTCC, she continued, was a result of the city finding itself “without a partner in the [Sarasota YMCA amid] terrible financial times,” with the county’s unemployment rate at 11 percent. The county’s budget was in better shape than the city’s, Robinson added.

(During her presentation, Brown pointed out that when the new “state-of-the-art” RLTCC was planned, city staff worked with representatives of the Sarasota YMCA and even considered having the Y operate the complex, though that did not come to fruition.)

Robinson voted against the interlocal agreement, she said, fearing just the type of situation the County Commission was facing that day with the city funding request for the RLTCC.

Caragiulo told his colleagues he had spent a lot of time researching the issue over the past week, including watching a number of meeting videos. “I’m angered by this for a couple of reasons,” he said. Primarily, he continued, he was upset by the city’s approach to the funding request, characterizing it as “basically presenting us an invoice …”
And while he believes “the facility is of enormous importance,” he said, he questioned the increasing operating costs and decrease in revenue from its programs. That led him to question how it is managed.

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo
Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo

Barwin, however, told the News Leader he feels the RLTCC is managed well.

“I live in the unincorporated part of Newtown,” Mason responded. “I have used the Robert Taylor Center. But I have to think globally in this about all of Sarasota County, and I’m telling you, the [other municipalities] will be lined up if we made a decision other than what I am proposing.”

Caragiulo said he could support her motion “because it’s very specific.” Still, he added, he would like to talk at some future point about “the bigger picture,” noting, “I understand that a lot of things in one chapter [of city and county relations] have contaminated another chapter. … What I’m talking about is a philosophy of how we support our taxpayers.”

“Our city residents are also paying county taxes,” Barwin told the News Leader.