County commissioners vote 4-1 to OK EOC site

With split votes over funding concerns as well as the process, the Sarasota County commissioners May 8 directed staff to proceed with design work, permitting and construction for a new Emergency Operations/911 Center on the 1301 Cattlemen Road site they have been considering since February 2011.

Those votes followed criticism of county staff over how the commissioners had learned that Jack Cox, president of Halfacre Construction Co., had withdrawn his property at 7060 Professional Parkway, in Lakewood Ranch, from consideration for the EOC location.

Those comments May 8 were reminiscent of criticism commissioners had voiced on April 24 — the last time the EOC site selection process was on the agenda — that they had not had adequate notice of a price reduction Cox had offered for his property.

The board also clarified in its final motion May 8 that the EOC will be built along the Porter Road side of the Cattlemen property the county owns.

A Sarasota County graphic shows the proposed site of the new Emergency Operations Center along Porter Road, on property the county owns on Cattlemen Road.

Commissioner Nora Patterson, who had had to recuse herself from earlier discussions of the EOC because of a potential conflict of interest, was able to participate in the process May 8, because of Cox’s action. On April 24, she had pointed out that Cox, in times past, had been a client of her husband, an attorney.

When she mentioned at the outset of the discussion May 8 why she was going to participate in the vote, Commissioner Jon Thaxton asked what she meant by a letter from Cox.

“There’s a letter in the packet” of materials provided to the board members in advance of the meeting, Patterson told him.

County Administrator Randall Reid explained that he had met with Cox and others from Cox’s firm on April 30, as the commission had directed him in their April 24 vote. “The following day, Mr. Cox withdrew,” Reid said.

“I’m a little disturbed to … find the letter in the packet,” Commissioner Carolyn Mason said. Addressing Reid, she added, “I would have hoped that you would have talked to us, and especially me, because I made the motion to have the staff go back and meet with Mr. Cox.”

“I apologize,” Reid responded. “I thought the letter had gone out to you in a copy and also in the packet.”

Cox’s letter said, “My commitment to the County on proposing the Professional Parkway site as an alternate to Cattlemen Road has always been based on providing the County with a viable option which offered substantial cost and time savings based on the design criteria parameters provided.”

He added that he and his staff had felt the county would have been able to construct the new EOC more quickly on that site.

However, Cox said in the letter, “It was not until our meeting … where all the details were openly discussed, that the overall County master planning process was provided to us, and quite frankly, it changed the viability of our proposal. It is quite clear the County staff feels very strongly that, based on many variables, not just cost and time, the best location for this EOC facility is at the Cattlemen Road site.”

Project Manager Carolyn Eastwood, of the county’s Public Works Department, had explained to the commissioners in December and again on April 24 that the Professional Parkway site did not readily meet certain criteria she and other staff were using in determining the best site for the EOC.

Before the May 8 vote, Eastwood provided revised figures on the estimated cost of the EOC. The original construction cost had been put at $9 million, she said, but Ian Reeves, president of Architects Design Group, which the county has been using as a consultant, had lowered that to $7.5 million, she said, based on current costs per square foot for such a facility.

Additionally, the cost of a 300-foot radio transmission tower on the EOC site, which staff had been directed to figure into the plans, had been raised to $700,000, she said, a $200,000 increase over the original figure.

Finally, Eastwood said, changes in those numbers had necessitated a change in the figure for the standard 5% contingency cost.

The new estimate for the facility, she said, was $12,577,214, compared to the earlier figure of $13,942,214.

After Eastwood completed her presentation, Patterson said, “I’d like Mr. Reid or somebody to tell us where the dollars will come from for construction.”

Reid responded that a follow-up presentation would be provided on the funding. The commissioners could look at whether to use sales tax revenue or even, potentially, a bond referendum, “which is something that has not been discussed in detail,” he added, though that had been mentioned, he said he understood, before he came to work for the county in late January.

“We will come back with the alternatives,” Reid said, “for financing this over the long term.”

Patterson said she would prefer the board vote May 8 on proceeding with the design and permitting phase, with no mention of construction in the motion.

“I have no doubt we’ll come up with the dollars, but it does seem like we should identify from where, before we proceed,” she added.

Thaxton made the motion to select the 1301 Cattlemen Road site and direct staff to proceed with final design.

Mason seconded it.

Thaxton also referenced a sentence in Cox’s letter about the process not having been a negative one, to reach this point. Cox’s offer of the alternative property, Thaxton said, had led to the commissioners reconsidering the Cattlemen site, “and I think that reconsideration was a healthy one.”

Although he said he would support the motion, Commissioner Joe Barbetta voiced concern about the county losing a $1 million federal grant to help fund the new EOC, if the motion did not include language regarding construction.

Bob Stuckey, general manager of public safety communications for the county, told the board that staff would be submitting a letter requesting an extension of the grant for one year. “In that, we will show the budget and the timeline,” Stuckey said.

Then Barbetta expressed concern that 1301 Cattlemen really was not the appropriate address; the EOC, he pointed out, would be constructed at the rear of that property, along Porter Road.

Thaxton and Mason concurred with changing that part of their motion.

“I want to clarify I think we do need to proceed with construction,” Patterson said. “I really think we need to identify the funding source.”

That matter should come back to the board “sooner rather than later,” she said.

Then Thaxton said he saw no harm in including the construction language in the motion. He made a motion to amend the earlier motion to reflect that. Mason seconded the amended motion.

“I have concerns with doing that,” Robinson said. “This process has been riddled with problems,” she added, pointing to the change in the cost estimate as just the latest one.

“This, to me, is a shining example of how we shouldn’t be operating in county government. … To have Mr. Cox  be the one to hold our feet to the fire is not how this should be,” Robinson said.

The commissioners should have another discussion on the facility’s funding before proceeding with any motion that including language about construction, she said.

However, Thaxton’s amended motion passed 3-2, with Robinson and Patterson voting, “No.”

On the final motion to direct staff to proceed with final design and construction of the EOC on the Porter Road site, Robinson was the only commissioner dissenting.

The new EOC is necessary because county staff learned several years ago that the Sarasota County Administration Center on Ringling Boulevard, where an EOC had been constructed on the sixth floor, could not withstand a hurricane stronger than a Category 3.