Commissioner Nancy Detert balks at first because of budget concerns, but other board members convince her to support the action
It appeared at first that the vote would be 4-1. However, after hearing more details regarding the annual debt service — not to mention the related cost savings — Sarasota County Commissioner Nancy Detert joined her four colleagues on the board in approving the county’s payment of $15,765,280 for a 71,592-square-foot office building on Cattleridge Boulevard in Sarasota for Sheriff Tom Knight’s administrative staff, evidence storage and consolidation of his department’s scientific divisions, including Forensics and the Drug Lab.
With closing costs and improvements to the structure, a staff memo says, the total the county is expected to invest in the project is $16,255,083.
The 4.25-acre site is located 1.5 miles from the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road and has “immediate potential access to [Interstate] 75, [if necessary,] “during a catastrophic weather event,” Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, told the board during its regular meeting on Feb. 7.
Additionally, the structure — which was built in 2004, he said — can withstand 130-mph winds.
Knight will be able to relocate staff from two county-owned facilities and two leased buildings, Lowdermilk noted. If the commission approved the purchase that day, he added, staff anticipated the completion of renovations in late summer.
“No 1,” Detert said, “we all love our sheriff. No. 2, we want him to have a good headquarters that accommodates his needs, but No. 3, we have to worry about how to pay for it.”
She continued, “From what I see of our budget process, I think we may need a little bit more time to figure out how we are going to do [No. 3].”
Commissioner Alan Maio concurred with Detert that the board will need to find the money for the transaction, including the debt service. However, he said, if the county board and staff cannot come up with the funds for this and three other initiatives that also are high priorities, “quite frankly, we’re all going to stare straight down the gun barrel on these four projects, [given] the type of adjustment to the millage rate that’s going to be needed.”
The other three are the new Sheriff’s Fleet Maintenance Facility on Laurel Road near Venice; a new single-story courthouse structure on the campus of the county’s R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, plus renovations to other parts of the Anderson Center; and a new Central Energy Plant to replace the structure in downtown Sarasota that provides cooling for a number of county buildings.
Past and present
During his Feb. 7 presentation, Lowdermilk explained that after the County Commission in May 2016 abandoned the idea of a Public Safety Referendum on the November 2016 Presidential Election ballot, staff was asked to find a more affordable means of meeting the Sheriff’s Office’s needs.
Knight’s proposed facilities on county-owned land next to the Emergency Operations Center had been estimated at $107.8 million out of referendum funds, Lowdermilk said. They would have included not only a new administrative headquarters but also training and parking facilities.
Purchasing the building at 6010 Cattleridge Blvd. will enable the sheriff to consolidate about 190 of his employees in one location, Lowdermilk pointed out. And while staff had considered the option of leasing the structure, Lowdermilk continued, a more in-depth review of the Sheriff’s Office’s needs indicated that — because of space customization requirements — it would be more cost-effective for the county to proceed with the purchase.
The annual debt service on a bond to cover the price would be $1,090,000, if a 30-year amortization period were secured, as staff expected.
“I’ve toured this building,” Commissioner Maio said. “I think it’s perfect for our needs,” he added, and it is substantially lower in cost than the Sheriff’s Office portion of the referendum would have been.
Detert then raised her concerns about the county’s borrowing money for the project. Perhaps Knight would be willing to make a one-time, $1 million concession in his budget to cover maintenance expenses, for example, to help the County Commission with the expense, she added.
(Commissioner Charles Hines later reminded all of his colleagues that the funds for Knight’s annual budget come from the county. Detert, a former state House and Senate member, just joined the commission in November 2016.)
“It’s easy to borrow money,” Detert pointed out. “It’s harder to pay it back. So I don’t think we have the proper details on how we’re going to pay for this in order to approve this project today.”
Maio responded with the details about the previously proposed referendum. Altogether, he continued, the estimates staff had provided the board put the referendum at $230 million to $240 million.
Knight ultimately asked the board to remove his projects from the proposal. He cited a number of factors, not least of which was his concern that the already contentious Presidential campaign would make voters less inclined to view the referendum favorably. After Knight made his request in May 2016, the commission scrapped the idea for the referendum and asked staff to examine the projects separately, to determine whether the county could pay for them by borrowing up to $22.6 million for each, as allowed by the County Charter without voter approval.
Following that direction, Maio continued, staff managed to whittle down the total cost of the four projects to about $70 million.
Addressing his colleagues, Maio said, “We have to watch how we spend the money and where we spend the money … but, there’s some consolidation of offices [in the Cattleridge Boulevard building].”
Immediately after Maio completed his remarks, Commissioner Mike Moran made a motion to approve a resolution for the execution of a contract for the purchase of the structure from Cattleridge Partners II.
Maio seconded it.
Then County Administrator Tom Harmer explained that if the staff and board could not identify sufficient funding to cover the expense, the commission could terminate the contract negotiations. However, in response to a question from Chair Paul Caragiulo, Harmer said the county would incur a penalty up to $75,000 if it had to back away from the purchase.
“Ironically,” Moran told his colleagues, “I was a tenant in this building for an extended period of time. … This is a quality asset,” with long-term value to the county’s taxpayers.
Referring to the estimated total for the referendum, Commissioner Hines reiterated Maio’s earlier point: “The numbers were just astronomical.”
Then, referring to the report Sheriff Knight presented several years ago to back up his request for new facilities, Hines said, “[This is] not a want; this was a need. … This is a good deal.”
After hearing staff remarks, too, regarding the upcoming in-depth budget discussion — set for Feb. 17 — Detert said she would support the purchase. Still, she pointed out, “Nobody at this table would go sign a $15-million mortgage and not know what the [interest] payment is.”
Further, Detert told her colleagues, “We all hope we have a great sunny future, [but] we have to plan for the worst … I think the budget meeting is going to be very beneficial.”