County commissioners express intent to adjust priorities for county’s Capital Improvement Program in coming years to put emphasis on water quality initiatives

Board members propose other initiatives for staff to research in an effort to keep red tide at bay

Siesta Beach is mostly deserted just after 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 16, 2018, after publicity about the red tide event became widespread. Image courtesy courtesy Sarasota County Government via Twitter

Every spring, the Sarasota County commissioners sit down with the county administrator, the director of the county’s Office of Financial Management and the leaders of the Public Works Department to review what they all refer to as the “CIP.”

The Capital Improvement Program encompasses a wide range of projects — from athletic park maintenance to road resurfacing to the creation of new parks to installation of sewer lines to replace septic tanks.

Generally, with one exception over the previous five years, commissioners have relied on staff recommendations for project priorities. The CIP covers five years, but, essentially, with the passage of the new county budget for each fiscal year, the commission approves the projects and related funding on the list just for that specific year.

In May 2013, with county budget cuts having been made necessary by the Great Recession, complaints about the quality of roads had become commonplace. As a result, the board members ended up with a 3-2 split over a proposal by then-Commissioner Christine Robinson for a significant increase in funding for road resurfacing. Robinson won support from then-Commissioners Nora Patterson and Carolyn Mason to boost the funding to $10 million per year — at least for the next five years — to improve the road system. Commissioner Charles Hines — now the chair of the board — and then-Commissioner Joe Barbetta opposed the change.

Six years later, with Sarasota County having suffered devastating effects on sea life and tourism as a result of a red tide bloom off the west coast of Florida, commissioners have made it clear to top administrative staff that water quality projects will be their priority for the CIP for the 2020 fiscal year.

During an hour-long discussion on March 29, as the commissioners conducted their first budget workshop of the year, Hines pointed out, “Needs and priorities change.” This year, in preparation of the FY2020 budget, he continued, he and his colleagues must do a better job of evaluating every project in the CIP. Perhaps a new park that seemed important a couple of years ago, Hines said, is not as important now. “We need to look through [the CIP] very carefully.”

Workers clear dead fish from a county beach on Aug. 14, 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I think everything changed for us this last summer and woke us all up,” he added, referring to the abundance of negative publicity about red tide on the Sarasota County shoreline. Photos of piles of dead fish and the red-brown waves of the Gulf of Mexico, stories about dead dolphins, and warnings about the potential dangers of respiratory damage from the red tide aerosol all contributed to in far fewer visitors than the county had recorded in recent summer and fall months.

The county’s “bed tax” revenue drop through the end of the 2018 fiscal year, and the continuing month-over-month decreases for early 2019, have underscored the impact of the national news and social media focus on the environmental devastation wreaked by the red tide algae, Karenia brevis.

“Water quality and quantity, really, [are] the quality of life we’re dealing with for now and the future,” Hines said on March 29. They also are “our entire economic basis,” he pointed out. “If we don’t have water quality and water quantity, we’re done. We’re out of business.”

Getting a head start on 2020

Although water quality issues typically would be part of the CIP discussion planned for the May budget workshop, County Administrator Lewis explained on March 29, the Florida Legislature will begin its 2020 session in January and conclude it in March, because next year is an election year. That was the primary reason, Lewis said, that he wanted staff to review water quality projects already included in the CIP during the March workshop. Staff would need to be prepared earlier to seek state funding for projects, Lewis added, if the commissioners decided to provide new direction in regard to specific initiatives.

As first Scott Schroyer, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, and then Spencer Anderson, county engineer and director of the Public Works Department, ran through lists of water quality projects already listed in the CIP, commissioners had a number of suggestions.

For example, when Schroyer talked about plans for more replacements of replace septic tanks with sewer systems in the Phillippi Creek Basin, as well as aging infrastructure in other areas, Hines pointed out that the public is very interested in knowing how individual projects will affect the amount of nutrients that end up in Sarasota Bay and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. (Mote Marine Laboratory scientists have explained that nitrogen, especially, feeds red tide blooms.)

This is one page of the CIP for the Public Utilities and Public Works departments that the County Commission approved in September 2018 for the 2019 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 2018. Image courtesy Sarasota County

People also want to know how the county is monitoring the “nutrient loads,” Hines told Schroyer. The information should be included as part of any update staff provides the commission about water quality projects, Hines said.

Moreover, Hines stressed, “That [information] needs to be part of the criteria and consideration of everything we do. Is [a project] making a difference?”
Commissioner Nancy Detert then noted her frustration that the slides Schroyer was showing the board had no project timelines. “Some of these things take years longer than I think they should take, or we need to look to expedite them in whatever way we can, working with [the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP)] or whatever.”

“Sure,” Schroyer replied.

Residents of Sarasota County “care about water quality,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler added. They want to know exactly what the county is doing to improve water quality, he emphasized.

Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham did explain at that point that the county’s three water reclamation facilities “are all classified as advanced secondary [treatment plants].” FDEP allows 15 to 20 mgs of nitrogen per liter, Cunningham continued. The nitrogen count following treatment in the county facilities is lower than that, he said: 12 to 15 mgs per liter.

That is just the type of information the county needs to publicize, Ziegler told Cunningham.

Commissioner Alan Maio offered another suggestion: When staff talks about proposed new projects to replace septic tanks in the Phillippi Creek Basin, the number of tanks should be part of the discussion.

The red line represents Phillippi Creek. Image from the Sarasota County Water Atlas

(In a Nov. 20, 2018 report to the commission, Schroyer pointed out that, as of that time, the county had spent more than $119 million on the Phillippi Creek Septic System Replacement Program, creating about 10,077 central sewer service connections.)

“It’s a major replacement program,” Maio stressed on March 29.

Hines noted the public pushback the commission has had for years, with people not wanting to contend with the expense of sewer hook-ups. The argument he hears, he continued, is that the county had better be doing all it can to improve water quality before it forces extra expenses on the public.

More suggestions

Commissioners cited other problems with the preparation of the slides they were reviewing. After hearing that “Unfunded” in a number of circumstances meant a project design had not been completed yet, so no funding had been attached to the work, board members proposed that the language be clearer, to ensure they and the public understand the facets of each situation.

Maio noted another example involving a Phillippi Creek Basin project. “Get this stuff in front of us as quickly as possible and quantify it, so it jumps off the page at us.”

At one point, Commissioner Detert proposed to County Administrator Lewis, “I would think we need pretty much a full-time grant-writing department. … I think that we’ve grown to the size that we need that.”

Lewis replied that county staff has been winning about $20 million a year in grants over the past five years for a variety of projects. He explained that staff members who are experts on specific issues seek funding from state, federal and other sources.

Commissioner Michael Moran told Lewis he thought Detert was suggesting the hiring of three or four new, full-time employees who could help double the amount of grant funding, calling that “probably a good investment of taxpayer dollars …”

This section of the Sarasota County Capital Improvement Program, proposed in May 2018 for the 2019 fiscal year, lists septic tank replacement initiatives, among others. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Ziegler concurred that Detert was “going down the right path”

Chair Hines asked Lewis to look into whether adjustments need to be made in how staff seeks out grants.

Then Ziegler offered another suggestion for staff to research: creation of a monitoring system that would display data in real time regarding nutrient loads in waterways, similar to the app Mote Marine updates daily regarding conditions on the county’s beaches.

“Maybe we can look at starting in one watershed,” Ziegler said. If staff determined the nutrient load was too high in any situation, he continued, staff could work to “back up to the [source of the] problem].”

Perhaps staff could contact Mote and other agencies, he added, to seek assistance with such a project.

When Lewis asked whether the commission wanted to make that initiative an official assignment, Hines replied, “Absolutely! … We need to know some numbers on which project to pick and where,” Hines added, referring to water quality initiatives in the CIP that will reduce the nutrient loads entering the county’s waterways.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Detert referenced the fact that she had “asked very pointed questions.” She added, “I wholeheartedly agree with the chair’s comments” about the need to evaluate the CIP more thoroughly for the next five years.

She said that the undertaking also could serve as an opportunity for Lewis to “put [his] own fingerprints on the county. … We expect you to identify [projects], too.”

Lewis just marked his first year as county administrator in January.

Addressing Lewis, Detert added that she felt she was speaking for all the commissioners: “You have the full trust and support of the board, and I think we all have a good working relationship with your staff.”