County commissioners hold up lease renewal on East Venice Avenue parcel after questioning why it is not on the list of surplus lands for sale

Property has been leased to City of Venice for $10 a year since 1998 for warehouse purposes

The building at 440 E. Venice Ave. dates to 1979, according to Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office records. Image from Google Maps

Item No. 3 on the Sarasota County Commission’s Oct. 10 Consent Agenda of routine business items ignited a new round of frustrations that staff is not working quickly enough to help the board sell surplus lands.

That agenda item called for the commission to adopt a resolution approving the leasing of property located at 440 E. Venice Ave. in Venice to the City of Venice for $10 per year for 10 years, ending on Sept. 30, 2024.

Commissioner Charles Hines pulled it for discussion. “I just need some background on this,” he said. “I know we tasked our Real Estate Department to find more surplus properties.” The location would make the parcel attractive to buyers, he indicated.

Not only is the lease set at just $10 a year, Hines pointed out, but the county also would be responsible for any maintenance on the structure, including adding a new roof or installation of a new air-conditioning system.

A staff memo provided to the board in advance of the Oct. 10 meeting says the 10,000-square-foot site has a 3,240-square-foot, one-story block building on it. Until 1998, the structure was used as Fire Station No. 35, the memo notes.

During a joint meeting of the County Commission and the Venice City Council, held on June 30, 1998, the boards approved an interlocal agreement that allowed the city to use the building for “various purchasing and warehousing functions,” the memo says. The initial lease was for six years. Then, on Feb. 23, 2005, the County Commission approved another lease of the property to the City Council for 10 years, with an option of an additional 10-year renewal, the memo points out.

Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, told the board that staff proposed renewal of the lease, backdated to 2014.

The memo recommended that the lease be retroactive to Oct. 1, 2014, with an initial term of 10 years and one 10-year renewal period.

“I don’t really like the retroactive contract [provision],”
Commissioner Nancy Detert told Lowdermilk.

An aerial view shows the building and parcel at 440 E. Venice Ave. in Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“This is a head-scratcher,” Commissioner Alan Maio told his colleagues on Oct. 10. “I am as uncomfortable as apparently Commissioner Hines is.” He added that 1998 “was a long time ago.” The $10 annual payment, Maio continued, “is tantamount to giving them the building.”

The Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office valued the land at $66,000 this year; the building, at $94,200. The structure dates to 1979, according to that office’s records.

Like Hines, Maio talked of the need to sell the county’s surplus properties. The resulting money “replenishes one or more of the buckets that need to be replenished,” he added.

In budget discussions this year, board members and administrative staff referenced “buckets” or “pots” of money. The county’s General Fund, for example, is made up mostly of property tax revenue; it can be used for a variety of purposes. Other county funds comprise fees paid for services departments render. For example, fire assessments cover the expenses of the Sarasota County Fire Department.

County staff also has explained that if parcel used by a certain department were sold, the proceeds typically would go back to that department.

“I’m very pleased Commissioner Hines pulled this one,” Commissioner Michael Moran added of the East Venice Avenue property lease, calling Hines’ request for additional information before a board vote “basically a no-brainer.”

Past, present and future

Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Sarasota County Fire Chief Michael Regnier appeared at the podium to explain that, based on his research, the county originally used the building on that East Venice Avenue property for two ambulances. One assisted with calls that the fire station on Venice island received, he continued, while the other aided with calls that came into the fire station just across the street. The lease agreement grew out of a debate over payments regarding county EMS operations in the City of Venice, Regnier added. Ultimately, he said, the county was relieved of paying to keep its EMS units in City of Venice fire stations.

“Again, this is a piece of property right on East Venice Avenue,” Hines responded. “We have this piece of property that has value on it, [but] we’re letting [the city] use it basically for free,” with no benefit to county residents.

“We’re struggling to replenish our Economic Uncertainty Fund,” Hines stressed, referring to the “rainy day” reserve that previous commissions set aside to help balance budgets in the event of a recession. Later that day, the board held its first discussion on efforts to plug projected holes in future budgets and build up that Economic Uncertainty Reserve once again. (See the related story in this issue.)

Hines questioned how staff could not have targeted the East Venice Avenue land for surplus. He added that he felt the city could find some other place to store its records.

Detert said she would have no problem with continuing to lease the property to the city for $10 per year with the proviso that if the county sells the land, the city would have a specific amount of time within which it would have to relocate its records.

The lease does the provision that either party may terminate the agreement after providing a 180-day notice to the other party, County Administrator Tom Harmer pointed out.

“I think the city should have fair warning that [the land is] on the market,” Detert responded.

Hines made a motion to continue the discussion in the effort to allow staff more time to research the background of the original agreement and bring that information back to the board.

Detert seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

After the vote, Hines reiterated to Harmer his concerns that staff of the Real Estate Services Division “very clearly [needs] to go find properties” that the county can sell.

Commissioner Charles Hines. File photo

Hines added that he was troubled that the renewal of the lease agreement was on the Consent Agenda, as well, because no one on staff had discussed the item with the commissioners in one-on-one sessions typically conducted about upcoming agenda business.

Hines wondered aloud how many other county-owned parcels — similar to this one — might be good candidates for sale but have not been identified as surplus lands. Referring to the East Venice Avenue property, Hines pointed out, “This just darn near slipped under the radar.”

At least once a quarter, Hines said, staff needs to discuss with the board the potential for selling specific surplus parcels.

“He summed it up very accurately,” Commissioner Maio said of Hines.