Staff had proposed a tax assessment on property owners in the affected areas to cover up to 50% of the estimated $7.6 million expense
Four of the five Sarasota County commissioners this week made it clear to staff that they believe the county should shoulder the responsibility of paying for repairs to two sections of Casey Key Road, including an area where a county potable water line has been threatened by significant shoreline erosion.
During a June 2019 budget workshop, county Public Works staff proposed the potential of reviving a millage rate for a special taxing district on the affected portion of Casey Key. At that time, Spencer Anderson, director of the Public Works Department, suggested the Municipal Services Taxing Unit (MSTU) assessments could cover up to 50% of the cost of the shoreline project. He estimated the total expense at $7.6 million.
However, commissioners voiced discomfort over that prospect, especially since no Casey Key property owners in that district had been assessed since 1996.
During a Feb. 4 discussion, Commissioner Charles Hines said, “This MSTU just doesn’t seem to fit. … This is a public road, and everybody uses it all the time.”
During public comments on the issue that day, Lisa Napolitano, president of the Casey Key Association, told the board members she was speaking for all of her organization’s members when she said, “We agree Casey Key Road needs to be repaired without delay …” However, she continued, the funding should come entirely from the county, just as the county would pay for repairs to any other road it owns.
“The county has a duty to protect the roads and water mains on Casey Key … to benefit the general public,” another Casey Key Road resident, Archie Urciuoli added.
“Some months ago,” Dennis Doughty, past president of the Casey Key Association told the board, “I overheard one of our representatives tell a resident, ‘If you buy property on the beach, you need to be ready to accept the consequences.’ The county bought a road and a water system on the beach,” Doughty continued, “and I think the county needs to accept the consequences of that.”
Unless someone could offer him a better argument, Hines said after the public comments, he could not justify new assessments for the county project. People who have bought houses on Casey Key over the past 24 years, he added, “had no clue that this [funding proposal] could come forward.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Chair Michael Moran said.
“Commissioner Hines … has said exactly what I wanted to say,” Commissioner Alan Maio added.
Commissioner Nancy Detert made the count four.
Only Commissioner Christian Ziegler offered no opinion that day about using MSTU assessments to help cover the county’s expense.
Maio asked Public Works Director Anderson if staff had determined whether revenue in the county’s Public Utilities Department Reserve Fund could be allocated to the Casey Key project.
Staff had not evaluated that idea, Anderson told him.
“Let’s look at that,” Maio told him.
In response to another question from Maio, Anderson said staff hopes to get final funding direction from the commission when the board holds its first workshop on the county’s 2021 fiscal year budget, which has been scheduled for late March.
Anderson also explained on Feb. 4 that staff is trying to obtain an extension of a state permit to keep temporary, oversize sandbags — “trap bags” — in place in the 2100 block of Casey Key Road, where erosion threatens the potable water line. Staff’s goal, Anderson emphasized, is to begin repairs of a step revetment in the 700 block of North Casey Key Road and to start construction of a new revetment in the 2100 block area no later than November 2021. That way, he said, the project could be completed in April 2022, before sea turtle nesting season gets underway officially on May 1, 2022.
If the initiative cannot begin in November 2021, Anderson told the board, staff most likely would have to wait until after the 2022 nesting season to schedule the project.
In the meantime, the commissioners voted unanimously, on a motion by Hines, to appropriate a total of $1,058,640 for the design phase of the Casey Key project. The motion included approval of a $769,400 agreement with Erickson Consulting Engineers of Sarasota to handle the work. “Project Management” — internal expenses, including efforts to obtain access across private property on Casey Key — would account for the remaining $212,300 of the total, Anderson said.
The tentative staff schedule calls for the design to be completed by April 2021, followed by an advertisement for construction bids to be published in May 2021.
Laying the groundwork
At the outset of his Feb. 4 presentation, Anderson of Public Works reprised the overview of the Casey Key situation that staff provided the commission in June 2019.
The step revetment constructed in 1990 on North Casey Key Road is about 1,600 feet long, he noted. County staff has undertaken major repairs in that area for at least the past three years, Anderson pointed out. “We have discovered significant voids under the road — ‘rental space,’ you may say — [that necessitated the installation of] several hundred cubic yards of fill to keep the road stable and to keep it safe for the public traversing it.”
He also showed the board members slides illustrating the amount of erosion on the Casey Key shoreline since 2007. “It’s probably about a 75% loss in 10 years.”
Turning to the mid-key site, he noted that that is south of Blackburn Point Road. A natural bluff has eroded just south of a seawall, he added. The potable water line next to the road “is comprised,” Anderson said.
“There is not funding for construction yet,” Anderson stressed in regard to the proposed project.
If the county were to cover the expense, he pointed out, $1.2 million in annual revenue it receives from one type of gas tax could be used. Additionally, the county has been setting aside about $2.5 million a year out of other gas tax revenue to cover gaps in project funding, including the road resurfacing program, he explained.
Staff estimates the debt service on a loan to pay for the Casey Key initiatives would total about $900,000 over 10 years, he said.
Then Anderson turned to a discussion of the MSTU, reminding the commissioners that the Office of the County Attorney had offered the opinion that because the district never was terminated, property owners could be assessed over a period of time to pick up a portion of the new project expense. A five-year schedule covering 50% of the county’s cost would necessitate a millage rate of 0.999, Anderson said; a homeowner with property valued at $1 million would pay $83 per month.
A 10-year schedule would involve a millage rate of 0.5449, with a $45-per-month assessment on a $1-million property.
Anderson showed the board a slide with other options, all with lower millage rates covering from 5% to 32% of the construction expense.
In response to commission direction to staff in June 2019, Anderson continued, staff had conducted a survey of Casey Key residents. That took place between Dec. 12, 2019 and Jan. 14, he said. The survey netted 159 responses from Casey Key residents, he added. The results showed that 70.1% of the Casey Key residents agreed that erosion of the private shoreline along the barrier island is a very important issue.
Another 21% said it was important.
Asked how the repairs for the road and water service should be funded, 69.4% of the residents answered that the county was obligated to cover the total expense. Another 16.56% said they would be willing to pay 50% of the cost.
However, Anderson acknowledged the fact that members of the Casey Key Association had been critical of the wording of questions on the survey.
Archie Urciuoli was among the speakers who told the commissioners on Feb. 4 that he believed the survey was “inadvertently misleading” because of the references to “private shoreline.”
Following the public remarks, Commissioner Detert said she previously had been inclined to think the property owners should pay part of the cost of the project. However, after listening to the residents, she continued, “It is pretty hard to justify why they should have to pay when it’s our road and our utilities.”
Looking even further ahead
With an eye to the future, Detert did have one suggestion. She said she would like for staff to work on MSTU rules that could be applied consistently to each of the county’s barrier islands. Such a mechanism could be used to “put money aside for future repairs” necessitated by emergency situations. The millage rate could be kept low, she continued.
“I feel that would be a good legacy for the board,” she added. Staff could consider “what’s a fair use of the MSTU [concept]? Do we need it?”
She did not turn that suggestion into a motion, however.