County commissioners voice vexation over City Commission’s delay of CRA discussion

County board members agree that the transfer to the county of the former Sarasota Police Department site on Ringling Boulevard be part of the resolution of the dispute

Sarasota County has presented this timeline to city leaders in documenting that the county owes no further CRA payment. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Several of his colleagues voiced anger this week, but Sarasota County Commissioner Michael Moran was the bluntest: If the Sarasota City Commission wants to negotiate a resolution of the dispute over a payment it says the county owes it, its first step should be to “drop any threat of litigation … Otherwise, frankly, I say we call their bluff.”

City staff and the previous City Commission maintain that Sarasota County should give the city more than $5 million — including interest — as a final payment to the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund, which was established in 1986 under a 30-year agreement. The debate has ensued for more than a year.

(Two new city commissioners were elected in May.)

Furthermore, Moran won agreement from his fellow board members that no resolution of the CRA issue can be reached unless the City Commission turns over to the county the site of the former Sarasota Police Department headquarters on Ringling Boulevard, which was the focus of a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two local government bodies.

On June 6, even County Commissioner Nancy Detert, who proposed a conciliatory approach during a joint session with the city commissioners on April 26 to discuss the CRA issue, was blunt: “They haven’t even jumped over hurdle No. 1,” she said of the city commissioners. “They can’t get to it for two weeks?” she asked. “Apparently, that $4 million is not all that important to them. … I think there’s some noticeable gamesmanship going on here.”

(The payment minus interest is about $4.5 million, city staff says.)

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

During its regular meeting on June 5, the City Commission was scheduled to discuss how to proceed in the dispute over the CRA payment. However, the afternoon session ran late; the board did not adjourn until 5:30 p.m., with the evening session set for 6 p.m. Therefore, City Manager Tom Barwin proposed the CRA discussion be moved to the evening agenda, and the city commissioners concurred.

About 11:30 p.m., with all the other business completed except for board reports, Barwin suggested — “in light of this very late hour” — delaying the CRA matter until the commission’s June 19 regular meeting.

“Hopefully, [the county commissioners will] understand,” City Attorney Robert Fournier added, noting the time, as well.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown. File photo

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown pointed out that at the conclusion of the April 26 joint session, the two boards had agreed to hold another session within 75 days of that one, after each had had time to discuss a settlement proposal on its own and Barwin and County Administrator Tom Harmer had had a meeting about those decisions.

Brown told the city commissioners that the County Commission was scheduled to discuss the CRA issue the next day. He indicated he would make certain Harmer knew the reason for the delay of the city board’s addressing the matter and ask that the County Commission agree to adding two more weeks to that 75-day time frame.

During a joint meeting of city and county staffs in early April — and the April 26 session of the two boards — city and county staff members presented documentation to support their opposing viewpoints about the timing of the last CRA payment. Deputy County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht also asserted county staff’s belief that if the city brought suit against the county over the $4.5 million, the county would prevail. Elbrecht further predicted that the city’s could end up paying as much as $800,000 for that litigation, because the county would seek an award of attorney’s fees if it prevailed in court.

County consternation

On June 6, Harmer mentioned only that Barwin “advised me late last night that [the city commissioners] were unable to get to that [CRA] item. … So we’re not exactly on the timeline that came out of the [April 26] meeting.”

Harmer continued, “We’ve continued to take the position that there is no additional payment that is due.”

However, he said, county staff has emphasized that the city is welcome to submit projects to the county for potential funding through the county’s Community Reinvestment Program (CRP), which the County Commission revived in 2015 in lieu of extending the Downtown Sarasota CRA.

The fact that some of the Downtown Sarasota CRA money was not being used for specific projects but was going instead to overhead was one reason county commissioners cited for declining to continue the CRA when it was nearing its end in 2016.

County Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Unless the county commissioners directed him otherwise, Harmer added on June 6, he would talk with Barwin about projects that would meet the criteria for CRP assistance. “They don’t involve overhead; they don’t involve planning. [The CRP is] more focused on infrastructure and public investment that would encourage private investment and/or economic development.”

A previous County Commission suggested a project in Newtown could be proposed successfully for CRP support, Harmer pointed out. He had conveyed that to Barwin, he noted, and suggested that projects in other parts of north Sarasota could be considered.

Commissioner Alan Maio was the first to speak up: “I would like this to stay just where it is, based on Administrator Harmer’s comments. I’d like to hear what the city says.”

Maio added that he feels certain the County Commission will hear a request in the future about funding assistance for whatever plan a nonprofit group proposes for the development of new cultural and arts amenities, as well as public space, on the city’s 42 acres of bayfront property. Therefore, he said, “I don’t want to get out in front of anything here.”

He really had been looking forward to the county commissioners being able to discuss whatever the city commissioners talked about the previous day, Maio said.

Noting the city commissioners’ failure to hold such talks the previous day, Detert told her colleagues, “I don’t know if I want to do any further projects with them.”

She added that she was not interested in partnering with another governmental body “who’s basically threatening to sue us and trying to hold us hostage.”

County Commissioner Michael Moran. File photo

When Commissioner Michael Moran asked to speak, Detert — who, as vice chair, was presiding in the absence of Chair Paul Caragiulo that morning — jokingly asked Moran if he was going to stick to his Snickers assertion of April 26. (As the board members offered their views at the end of that joint meeting, Moran told the city leaders, “I don’t think you deserve a Snickers bar on this …”)

On June 6, Moran first offered thanks to everyone who had sent him a Snickers bar after he made that remark. Then he called the evidence presented by county staff on April 26 “absolutely overwhelming,” demonstrating that the county does not owe the city “a single penny.”

He felt the threat of litigation, he continued, was leverage the city was trying to use to get county funding for projects. “I don’t feel that this board should be pressured under the threat of litigation to do anything,” Moran said.

Then he asked Harmer for clarification that the CRP was designed to enable the Cities of Venice and North Port to win funding for projects, as well. Before Harmer replied, Moran added that he did not support using the CRP “as some type of slush fund … [or] as a bargaining chip …”

Harmer explained that the CRP was re-established as a competitive process. The county does not impose any deadline for applications, he pointed out. The total available for projects is about $1.4 million, Harmer said; that information and the criteria for proposals have been shared with all the cities in the county.

‘Bone of contention’

Moran next raised the issue of the former Sarasota Police Department site. Long before he was elected to the County Commission, Moran said, that had been what he called “a raw nerve,” as the property “was promised to us. We have had a formal agreement … an understanding that a fifth-grader could understand.”

Moran told his colleagues, “That should absolutely be on the table for any type of settlement that we would have with the city on [the CRA payment].”

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

In 2003, county leaders were threatening to move their administrative offices and the courts outside the city limits. Then-Mayor Lou Ann Palmer signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the county, which called for action related to parking needs and other matters, along with the conveyance of the Police Department site to the county after the new police headquarters was completed on Adams Lane in downtown Sarasota.

In a March 2 email, City Attorney Robert Fournier sent City Manager Barwin copies of the MOU and an “extensive memo on the subject” that Fournier wrote in March 2015. Because the county never adhered to certain provisions of the MOU, Fournier maintains, the city is not obligated to turn over the Ringling Boulevard parcel to the county.

During the County Commission’s June 6 discussion, Moran noted that City Commissioner Suzanne Atwell — who since has stepped down from her board — brought up the former Police Department site on April 26. The County Commission never threatened the city with litigation over that property, Moran pointed out.

Detert finally sought consensus that the County Commission will not consider funding any city projects until it and the City Commission have settled the CRA dispute.

“I do agree with that,” Maio replied.

This is the first page of the 2003 MOU. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The former Police Department site, he added, “has been a bone of contention, and I don’t want to exacerbate a tug of war between our two groups. But I truly believe that that was always a tactic that some people wanted to employ to get us to do certain things, and, quite frankly, it has backfired.” He also agreed that any resolution of the CRA issue “comes with the understanding that that piece of property comes back to us.”

Maio pointed out, “[The 2003 MOU] was pretty clear, as Commissioner Moran said.” The property would remain in government use, Maio continued. Moreover, “anything we do on it, we pay for, and there’s a real need right now to fill it with parking spaces,” Maio added, even if that use proved to be a temporary one. (The site also has been proposed for a future expansion of the Silvertooth Judicial Center, which is adjacent to it.)

Harmer then summarized the direction from the commissioners, including the expectation that the former Police Department site be part of the resolution of the CRA dispute.

As for the CRP: “Anything that’s a competitive bid is fine,” Detert told him. “But [the Sarasota city commissioners] can’t think that we have $4 million dedicated specifically to that city for any project they think of.”