County’s chief engineer to provide list of construction proposals, but cautions that funding is the biggest constraint
Whoever serves as chair of the Sarasota County Commission fields general emails from the public and responds to them — copying the other board members while directing the correspondence to appropriate county staff, commissioners have explained to The Sarasota News Leader.
Of course, the chair also gets his or her share of emails from constituents.
During the commission’s March 29 budget workshop, it appeared that since he became chair in January, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo has dealt with more than a few complaints about the lack of sidewalks in the county. And he let staff know that he wants as much funding attention put on that issue as possible, with safety concerns the top criteria for a construction priority list.
Chief County Engineer Isaac Brownman said he would provide the board such a list.
The issue arose as Brownman was reviewing the sidewalk projects proposed for the county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that will begin in the 2018 fiscal year and continue through the 2022 fiscal year.
Updates of that CIP are a facet of the board’s annual budget process.
Only two projects are on the list for the next five fiscal years: one phase of sidewalk construction in Desoto Acres in FY18; the second, in FY22. The first project is budgeted at $3.5 million, while the second is expected to cost $3 million.
Earlier Brownman had explained that the county’s Surtax 3 program, which pays for such initiatives, took a hard hit during the Great Recession. The local option sales tax voters approved in 2009 originally was anticipated to bring in $50.1 million by the time it expires on Dec. 31, 2024. In the first year alone, collections were anticipated to total $41.2 million, he showed the board. Instead, according to a graphic Brownman displayed, the total was $25 million. During the 2016 fiscal year, the revenue reached the $35.8-million mark, but $45.4 million originally was forecast.
The sidewalk construction program, Brownman noted, has “been significantly constrained.” Yet, he said, staff would like to find a way to put more money into that facet of the CIP.
That was Caragiulo’s opening: “I’ll make the assumption that my colleagues get a similar level of interest, which would be a high level of interest, with regard to sidewalks anywhere.”
Now and the future
When Caragiulo asked Brownman what other funding strategies staff could look into to enhance the program, Brownman replied, “I don’t know which strategies we haven’t looked into.”
More recently, staff has had to contend with changes mandated by the federal government in regard to funding for transportation-related projects, about which the board heard an update on March 21, Brownman pointed out. Still, staff is working with the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization on ways to obtain any possible funding — including money from the state — for sidewalk construction, he added.
When Caragiulo asked whether staff maintains a list of all the sidewalks constructed in the unincorporated part of the county, Brownman responded that it does, and he could provide that to Caragiulo. Moreover, Brownman said, staff keeps a list of sidewalk projects organized by priority — for example, those needed near schools. “It’s probably seven or eight projects … not on this list for lack of money,” he told Caragiulo.
The public consistently asks for sidewalks, Caragiulo reiterated his earlier remark. “I just think we are spending too little time figuring out ways to get it done.”
Whenever the county constructs new roads, Brownman said, staff ensures sidewalks are included in the plans, such as those for the extension of Bee Ridge Road, which was completed in 2016.
Then Commissioner Alan Maio pointed out that, many years ago, he appeared before the commission on behalf of a client who was building a development east of Interstate 75, north of Clark Road and east of Saddle Oak Trail. He asked at that time whether his client could refrain from constructing “a small piece of sidewalk [where the Florida Department of Transportation] had nicked a wetlands years and years before and the wetlands came right up to the edge of the paving.” In lieu of building the sidewalk as required by the county’s land development regulations, Maio continued, the client sought a waiver that would have allowed for the same linear feet of sidewalk to be constructed near a school at the client’s expense. The board would not grant the waiver, he said.
“You all can go visit what my firm designed and built,” Maio continued. “It’s a beautiful boardwalk, elevated. It starts nowhere; it ends nowhere; cost a fortune; has never had human feet on it.”
Then Maio asked Brownman whether the county has begun providing any means for a developer to pay into a fund for sidewalks in other areas if it is not logical for the developer to construct one in a situation such as Maio had described.
“Yes,” Brownman replied. In fact, in the work underway to revise the county’s land development regulations and Zoning Code into a Unified Development Code, Brownman added, staff is considering proposing criteria for an administrative decision in such cases, instead of the matters having to be brought before the commission.
“I really think it’s important that we get that into the record,” Maio told him.
When Commissioner Charles Hines asked whether developers are asked to pay the county’s cost for sidewalk construction, Brownman replied that they are not. Staff considers the payments on a case-by-case basis, Brownman continued; it obtains an estimate from each developer regarding the cost for the same number of linear feet.
Brownman referenced a board discussion on that issue two or three years ago. “That was a big argument … between the development community and the county,” he added, because the county’s expense per linear foot for a sidewalk that is not part of a larger project is higher, generally, than a developer’s cost.
“Thank you,” Hines replied.
“This whole thing needs conspicuous augmentation,” Caragiulo said, again reiterating his earlier point about the need for the county to provide more sidewalks. He asked for staff ideas about how to achieve that, noting, “Property values will increase if you have sidewalks.”
Brownman then pointed out that during the recession, staff actually received complaints from residents who were upset because they thought “we were taxing them [more]” to be able to continue such projects.
“When I hear a complaint from someone about a sidewalk being built,” Caragiulo responded, “I’m going to let you know about it.”
Caragiulo proceeded to ask for the priority list of sidewalk projects, adding that he has heard frequent complaints about the lack of sidewalks on Proctor Road, for example, which poses hazards for the public. Any county priority list should make safety the chief consideration, he told Brownman. “We ought to have some kind of matrix that’s more holistic.”
“And you hit a primary [concern] with Proctor Road,” Brownman replied.
“I hear about that a lot; most recently, this morning,” Caragiulo said.
Staff will put together the sidewalk priority list, with safety as the top criterion, Brownman told the board.