County commissioners offer one tweak only to latest City of Sarasota offer to settle CRA payment dispute

Commissioner Hines wins colleagues’ agreement that city needs to deed former Sarasota Police Department land to the county

A graphic shows the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

On a unanimous vote this week, the Sarasota County Commission has agreed with the latest offer from the City of Sarasota to settle a two-year-old disagreement over the ending of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund.

Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion that effectively directed County Administrator Jonathan Lewis to proceed to work with City Manager Tom Barwin in crafting a document that would lay out the terms. “I think everybody will work in good faith,” Moran added.

“I like all of it,” Commissioner Alan Maio said of the latest city proposal. “I want this to be over.”

The total county commitment would be about $2,630,000, which is the amount city financial staff said the county owed as one final payment into the Downtown Sarasota CRA Trust Fund. With interest, the county owes the trust fund more than $5.5 million, Barwin said last year.

Deputy County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained during a joint meeting of the City and County commissions in April 2017 that county documentation showed the county had fulfilled its financial obligations to the Trust Fund. Nonetheless, city staff says its own records dispute that.

Among the four facets of the city’s latest proposal are the following:

  • The county would contribute $1 million for an affordable housing development. “The City has 25 lots that could be utilized for [such a project],” Lewis noted in a May 1 memo to the County Commission. The city also would contribute $500,000 to the fund, with the project to be managed by the Office of Housing and Community Development, which serves both local government jurisdictions.

The details would have to be worked out, Lewis told the commissioners on May 8.

The county contribution would come out of the Community Reinvestment Program (CRP) account. On April 25, the board awarded the rest of the money in that account — $400,000 — to the Town of Longboat Key for the first phase of an Arts, Culture and Education Center in the middle section of the island.

The Gulf of Mexico laps at stairs leading to Lido Key Beach on March 21, with a storm having lashed the shoreline. Photo by Rob Wright via the City of Sarasota

The county funds would come out of Tourist Development Tax revenue set aside for county beach renourishment projects.

Commissioner Maio asked that Lewis confirm that the project to which the county would be contributing would have nothing to do with the proposed dredging of Big Sarasota Pass, which has been the subject of legal challenges by Siesta Key nonprofit organizations and residents. (See the related story in this issue.)

“That’s absolutely correct, Commissioner,” Lewis responded.

  • The county and the city would extend an agreement, which expired in December 2017, for the county to provide $432,126.13 to assist with the remediation and rehabilitation of the Marian Anderson Brownfield Site in North Sarasota. The two local governments forged an interlocal agreement in 2004 regarding the cleanup of the property, with the county committing $500,000. However, the city ended up spending only $67,873.87. Under the new agreement, Lewis noted in his May 1 memo, the county would provide the rest of the money to the city in the 2019 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1.

The city has been working on development of the site, “with an emphasis on increasing the tax base and job creation” in North Sarasota, Lewis wrote in the memo.

  • The city and the county would split the $400,000 estimated expense of creating a surface parking lot on the site of the former Sarasota Police Department headquarters on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota.

In a statement issued after the County Commission action, City Manger Barwin wrote, “The items we’ve included in the proposal are aligned with the priorities of both the City and county, and they address issues we’ve been dealing with for a long time. This agreement will create a fresh foundation for the City and county to collaborate on the important challenges facing our region, from transportation to affordable housing, climate change and diversifying our economy.”

One tweak proposed

The site of the former Sarasota Police Department has stood vacant on Ringling Boulevard since 2012. File photo

The parking lot proposal was the only one county commissioners said they wanted tweaked. As Commissioner Charles Hines put it, “I’ve been the one that’s been harping on the parking lot for a while.”

In July 2017, City Manager Barwin proposed creating a pocket park with 50 public parking spaces on the property, which is next to the Silvertooth Judicial Center. The city’s conveyance of that land to the county was one facet of a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the county, in exchange for a county promise not to relocate its administrative offices and the courts from downtown Sarasota. However, last year, City Attorney Robert Fournier reiterated his position that the county never lived up to all of its promises in the MOU, so the city should not be obligated to convey the property to the county.

“There needs to be some more finality to what happens to that parking lot,” Hines told his colleagues on May 8. His understanding, he continued, was that city leaders became reluctant to turn over the land to the county for fear the county would “flip” the property and end up with a financial windfall. At one point in the past, he added, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh drafted an agreement ensuring that the land would not be used for any purpose that was not government-related, but city leaders would not accept that proposal.

A December 2017 graphic shows one concept for parking spaces on the former Sarasota Police Department site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Unless the city and the county could reach a formal agreement over the future of that property, Hines said he feared that even if the land were transformed into a surface parking lot, “all of a sudden it [could be] changed to something else. I just want you to have that discussion with [city administrative staff members],” he told County Administrator Lewis.

Hines reasserted his belief that the city should deed the property to the county, with restrictions imposed to keep the land in public use. With that caveat, he told Lewis, “Get the parking lot done as quickly as possible.”

Because primary elections are scheduled for late August and the General Election will be in November, Hines pointed out, demand once again will be high for parking spaces near the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections’ Office. (The main office is in the Terrace Building, which is just west of the Silvertooth Judicial Center.)

“Our community needs that space,” Hines added.

Commissioner Charles Hines. Rachel Hackney photo

“I completely agree with that,” Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said. “I’m kind of cautiously optimistic,” he added of working out terms with the city. “Hurry up,” he told Lewis.

“Commissioner Hines said it perfectly,” Commissioner Moran added. “I would argue that [the handling of the parking lot site] could potentially be a deal-breaker …”

Earlier, Chair Nancy Detert told Lewis, “I looked at your list [from the city], and I don’t love all the items, but I love most of the items.”

She and Commissioners Maio and Hines commended Lewis for his progress in the discussions with Barwin.

“Congratulations on getting us this far,” Detert told Lewis, pointing out that, after the two commissions met on April 26, 2017, the agreement they reached called for the managers to work out details of a potential settlement within 30 days and bring those proposals to their respective boards within another 30 days. The goal then was to reach a compromise during another joint session no later than 75 days after the first one.

“We’re not even on the same administrator,” Detert added.

Tom Harmer was still the county administrator when the boards began their formal negotiations last year.

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