Focused on speed, County Commission majority directs staff to continue negotiations with team proposing Fruitville Road site for new Medical Examiner’s Office

Property could be purchased in fifth or 10th year of lease, staff says

This is a rendering of the new District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office provided to county staff by the project team proposing construction on a Fruitville Road site. Image courtesy Sarasota County

For approximately seven years, Sarasota County commissioners have talked with Dr. Russell Vega, the medical examiner for District 12, about his needs for a new facility.

Vega and his staff serve not only Sarasota County but also Manatee and DeSoto counties out of a number of offices.

Last year, during a budget workshop, the board members committed to taking the necessary steps to make Vega’s request a reality.

On June 19, following further board discussion and direction, staff advertised a Request for Information, seeking proposals that would meet Vega’s specific site needs.

As a result, Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Division, provided details to the board on Aug. 31 about the solitary proposal staff received.

Following about 45 minutes of discussion, the majority of the commissioners concurred — as Commissioner Alan Maio put it — “Speed is everything in this instance.” They voted 4-1 — with Commissioner Christian Ziegler dissenting — to instruct staff to continue negotiations with the submitter of a proposal for a lease that would lead to the county’s purchasing the 4.4-acre property located at 4480 Fruitville Road.

That site meets all of Vega’s primary criteria, Eastwood explained. Those included a location between Clark Road and Fruitville Road within 3 miles of Interstate 75; a parcel that is a little more than 3 acres, suitable for a one-story structure of approximately 39,000 square feet; and zoning appropriate for a Medical Examiner’s Office.

A graphic shows the location of the 4480 Fruitville Road property, marked by the red balloon, near I-75. Image courtesy Sarasota County, via Google Maps

The team that submitted the Fruitville Road proposal to staff is willing to build a facility to suit Vega’s needs, Eastwood told the board.

It is slightly less than 2 miles from I-75, she noted.

Showing the commission renderings provided by the submitter, Eastwood said two different buildings would be constructed, with a sally port included, as Vega told staff he needed a drive-through garage.

The proposal offered three options, Eastwood continued, all with a 30-year lease:

  • The submitter would handle the site work and construct a building shell.
  • The submitter would handle the site work, construct the building and complete the interior.
  • The submitter would undertake the above steps and allow for the inclusion of the specialty morgue equipment. All of that could be accomplished within 24 months, Eastwood added.

During discussions with the submitter, she pointed out, staff talked about the inclusions of options for the county to purchase the property. The submitter was willing to add those for the fifth or 10th year of the lease, she said, with a price of $19.1 million.

In the meantime, Eastwood noted, the lease would be $34.75 per square foot, plus real estate taxes.

A second rendering of the proposed new facilities shows the sally port (left), for the drive-through garage. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho, who also serves as the county’s chief financial management officer, pointed out that staff has estimated the expense of the specialty equipment for the new Medical Examiner’s Office at a range between $2 million and $6 million; it was not included in Eastwood’s figures, he said.

If the commission preferred that staff handle the construction of a new building on county-owned land, Botelho noted, the county could borrow a maximum of $24 million, as allowed by the Sarasota County Charter without the need for a voter referendum. That borrow could take place early during the 2022 fiscal year, he said.

Then, the project probably could be completed by early December 2023, Botelho told the board.

At the end of the 30-year loan, he continued, the county would have paid $37.4 million in debt service.

He showed the commissioners a slide that compared lease options to a county construction initiative.

For example, adding in real estate taxes, Botelho said, a 30-year lease of the Fruitville Road property would cost an estimated $75,425,358. However, if the county exercised the purchase option at the end of five years, the total estimated expense would be $35,534,650. That would be more in line with the cost of the county’s handling construction of a new facility, he pointed out.

These are county-owned parcels that staff suggested as alternatives to the Fruitville Road location. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The county owns three parcels where the new Medical Examiner’s Office could be built in line with Vega’s criteria, Botelho said. They are 1301 Cattlemen Road, on the site of the Emergency Operations Center; 6201 Palmer Blvd., which is known as the Northwest Quad, adjacent to the Celery Fields; and property that adjoins the Sheriff’s Office Headquarters on Cattleridge Boulevard.

Which next step?

“I support us owning something,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said after the staff presentation.

The option of the 10-year lease, she said, “is the smartest thing to do.”

However, she continued, if the board approved construction of a new facility on land it owns, perhaps the Social Security Administration — which rents space in the same Siesta Drive building where Vega’s administrative offices are located — would be interested in becoming a tenant in the new county building.
“I believe we need to have the bigger conversation in terms of … a little bit more visionary,” Commissioner Ziegler responded.

The Sarasota County School Board, he pointed out, has its administrative offices at The Landings, which, he indicated, would have a high market value if the School Board chose to sell the land and relocate school district staff.

This is a site plan for the Medical Examiner’s Office, proposed by the submitter’s team. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Ziegler suggested directing county staff to work with the School Board on “some sort of government park … that’s easily accessible to the rest of the county, right along [I-75], if we could.” After all, he noted, North Port is the county’s biggest city, so its residents should have better access to government facilities.

(Botelho had reminded the commissioners that staff already is looking into the potential of moving the county’s administrative offices to the 1301 Cattlemen Road site.)

Ziegler added that he would like to have a more intensive discussion with his colleagues about his idea.

Commissioner Maio responded that he could recall discussing Vega’s pressing need for a new facility over at least the three previous years, as the board members worked on their budgets. (He first was elected to the commission in November 2014.) “And it takes two years to build something,” Maio stressed.

As for the Northwest Quad: After conservation easements have been placed over the other three Quads — as the board members agreed last year following discussions with representatives of the Sarasota Audubon Society and the Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast — the county could sell that Palmer Boulevard parcel, Maio said.

“I don’t want to see this just take a lot longer,” he added of making a decision on a site for the Medical Examiner’s Office. Maio estimated that it would take “a couple of more months, at a minimum,” for staff to conclude the negotiations over the Fruitville Road property.

Commissioner Charles Hines concurred with Detert in the desire to see the county own the site of the new Medical Examiner’s Office. Speed is easier in the private sector, he added. Calling the proposal for the Fruitville Road property a good one, Hines added, “I’m leaning that way.”

This graphic compares financial estimates for various options proposed by the submitter to the option of a county-built facility. ‘NPV’ stands for net present value. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Hines also agreed with Maio about the need to sell the Northwest Quad. Still, he acknowledged, “We’re going to get some complaints from the neighboring community, no matter how passive the use is.”

Numerous residents — especially those who live in the area near the Celery Fields — have urged the county to keep the Northwest Quad and ensure any future use on the site is compatible with the park atmosphere of the Celery Fields. Even though the latter is a major county stormwater project, it has become internationally known as a bird-watching environment, drawing a vast number of migratory species — and tourists — each year.

Chair Michael Moran said he was “very supportive of the public/private partnership relationship” under discussion in regard to the Fruitville Road site for Vega’s building. He also concurred with Maio on the need for speed.

Finally, Commissioner Detert asked County Administrator Jonathan Lewis which option he would suggest, concurring, too, on the need to accelerate the timeline for the completion of the new facility. “We could have looked like New York, with no facilities to handle [all the bodies],” she pointed out, referring to the tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths in that city at the height of the pandemic.

“If speed was the one of the deciding factors,” Lewis replied, and staff can negotiate appropriate terms, the best option would be for the board to direct staff to continue discussions with the submitter of the Fruitville Road proposal.

Maio made that a motion, including a call for staff to work on an option for the county to purchase the property, and Hines seconded it.