Frustrations and philosophy become focal points in parks discussion

County commissioners discuss history and future of their interlocal agreements with municipalities

Carolyn Brown. News Leader photo
Carolyn Brown. News Leader photo

The Jan. 13 agenda framed it as a discussion of the interlocal parks agreements between Sarasota County and its municipalities. But by the time the County Commission moved on to the next item, about 40 minutes later, it had proven to be an opportunity for board members to vent frustrations over what Commissioner Carolyn Mason characterized as the “us versus them” attitude county leaders have perceived in recent interactions with elected municipal officials.
And it included an airing of frustrations over some city leaders’ indications that they feel Sarasota County has the financial wherewithal to pick up a lot more of the parks’ expenses than their budgets allow.

Commissioner Charles Hines took the discussion a step further, raising the question of how the county and the municipalities will function separately and together in the future.

“We need as a community to begin to start asking ourselves, ‘Who can best provide what in the most economic way and provide quality services to the citizens so there’s not duplication … so there’s not this fight between city and county lines,” Hines said. “It’s not going to be answered today, but it’s a question that we need to honestly evaluate.”

“I want to say to our municipalities that this ‘us versus them’ attitude has to stop,” Commissioner Carolyn Mason added. “City residents are county residents. We’re in this together. We’re not the enemy of our municipalities. Our municipalities make us strong. … We’re family.”

She pointed out that the residents of the municipalities and those of the county are the “bosses” of elected officials. “Our citizens are the reason, I think, that good relations between our municipalities and our county need to be maintained all the time. God knows we try.”

“It would help us all if we could work together better,” Chair Al Maio said. “We seem to be under attack with great frequency, and I don’t think that’s necessary.”

The history

An aerial view shows the location of Wellfield Park in Venice. Image from the City of Venice website
An aerial view shows the location of Wellfield Park in Venice. Image from the City of Venice website

Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Carolyn Brown started off the discussion with a presentation that included history and current concerns.

The first interlocal agreement the county ever inked with a municipality regarding parks and recreation services was in 1969, with the City of Venice, Brown said. It involved construction of a combination softball/Little League athletic field at what has become Wellfield Park, which is located at 1300 Ridgewood Ave. in Venice.

“The first baseball diamond was constructed by the county at this location in 1969,” the county’s website notes.

Jumping to the present, Brown pointed out that the county has interlocal agreements for parks maintenance and recreation services not only with the City of Venice but also with the City of Sarasota (the first was in 1989; the second, in 2011) and the City of North Port (1993 and 2006). A memo she provided to the board in advance of the meeting says the county’s most recent interlocal parks agreement has been forged with the Town of Longboat Key in regard to the county-owned Bayfront Park Addition.

The municipalities’ demand for new facilities means more maintenance on the county’s part, paid for by the county’s general fund, Brown added, “which continues to be constrained. Further, the interlocal agreements have no requirements that the cities replace park amenities “that have reached the end of their useful lives,” she noted. “There’s no relief of us continuing to maintain or repair those [facilities].”

Some municipal parks have issues such as poor drainage and erosion that add to the county’s upkeep expenses, Brown continued.

The county’s repair and maintenance responsibility for each facility is capped at $5,000 per year, she said, but that does not cover related athletic field upkeep.

A chart shows repairs and maintenance work the county has performed for the City of Venice parks. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows some of the repairs and maintenance projects the City of Venice and the county have handled in City of Venice parks. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Robinson stopped Brown then to ask her to define “maintenance” from the county’s standpoint.

“We do everyday janitorial work, regardless of the cost,” Brown replied. “We clean, repair, replace.”

Mowing, edging and tidying up restrooms are also among the chores county staff handles, Robinson added.

The $5,000 limit, Brown explained, is for capital expenses.

The cities are responsible for all their own capital improvements, Brown explained. However, county staff must be consulted before a municipality begins a new project because of the potential impact the completed work could have on the county’s maintenance expenses.

“This process could use a little better clarification,” Brown noted.

A bit more history

Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo
Commissioner Christine Robinson. File photo

Only she and Mason were on the board, Robinson pointed out, when the county forged the last round of parks interlocal agreements — in 2011. By that time, Robinson continued, the county had dealt with numerous situations in which the cities had invested in new capital projects in their parks “without regard to the cost of maintenance.” She added, “They may have put in a gold-plated widget, which requires a higher level of maintenance, when they could have put in a silver-plated widget, which would have required regular maintenance.”

Robinson then noted a second issue that arose in 2011: “We were basically pouring money into the city parks” to the point where the municipalities stopped investing their own capital dollars. “So we were basically fixing [things] to make [the facilities] new again.”

For example, Robinson said, someone can keep replacing deteriorated parts of a fence “and pretty soon you’ve got a brand new fence. … Cities were forcing us to replace with maintenance their capital [amenities].”

Now, Robinson added, municipal leaders are complaining about the $5,000 cap. “It’s forcing them to reinvest … in the parks, and it’s becoming a budget problem for them …”

“You can’t even put a fence around a basketball court for $5,000,” Hines pointed out.

Present concerns

“Also often overlooked,” Brown told the board, “is the amount of staff time” necessary to work with the athletic leagues that conduct activities in the city parks. “The county manages over 50 athletic user agreements over all of the municipalities, resulting in about 5,700 facility use permits,” Brown added. Those involve leagues, clubs and schools.

“Most of [the staff time required is] after hours and on weekends and holidays,” she pointed out.

Her presentation included a chart showing county revenue and expenditures related to the parks covered by the interlocal agreements.

For example, the county spent $1,977,210 on City of Venice parks maintenance in the 2014 fiscal year. The county took in $375,760 in revenue (rental fees, for example) that fiscal year, and the estimated ad valorem revenue contribution to the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources budget from Venice in FY 2014 was $509,462, the chart showed. Therefore, the total net cost to the county because of the interlocal parks agreement with Venice was $1,091,988 in FY 2014.

A chart shows revenue and expenditures reflective of the parks interlock agreements. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A chart shows revenue and expenditures reflective of the parks interlock agreements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Maio noted the value of those figures: “We are constantly being nudged by friends and neighbors and, yes, voters, that we do nothing” for the city parks.

Mason said she believes that when parks are home to multiple regular activities, the cities where those facilities are located should create master plans showing all the uses. “That would give us a clue as to what they’re looking at, so that we can budget accordingly. Otherwise, it puts us in quite a bind. It impacts our budget in a big way, when we’ve planned for a year, and then, suddenly, they come up with things.”

Robinson pointed out that Venice leaders have complained that more county residents are using their parks than people who live in the city. However, she added, when tournaments or even just regular games are played at Wellfield, players and spectators head straight to numerous restaurants in the area. “The economic impact [of that] within the city is great,” she said, noting that it is important for the municipalities to recognize the importance of sports to their communities’ fiscal health.

Venice Mayor John Holic. Image from the City of Venice website
Venice Mayor John Holic. Image from the City of Venice website

Nonetheless, Robinson continued, several months ago, when she was speaking with Mayor John Holic of Venice, he said city leaders were considering moving youth sports out of Wellfield, “because so many participants are not city residents.” While she told him that was a decision for the City Council, she added that the Council members would have to be willing “to deal with the political payback from that from the residents. I don’t think the city residents will tolerate that, either.”

The future

Hines pointed out, “This is part of a huge question that our community — I don’t think — has been willing to ask itself: What is the role of cities? What is the role of counties? Our county is not the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago.”

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo told Brown that, having served on the Sarasota City Commission prior to winning election to the County Commission in 2014, he believes county staff does “a great job … trying to manage a very wide spectrum of interests.”

Hines added that he had asked Brown about best practices regarding parks interlocal agreements around the state. Addressing Brown, he continued, “You say this [type of] agreement is somewhat unique. Well, that is our community. We always seem to do things in a unique way.”

A map shows county parks and preserves within 5 miles of the City of Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A map shows county parks and preserves within 5 miles of the City of Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This chart identifies the parks numbered in the county parks map. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This chart identifies the parks in the county map. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In her Jan. 13 memo to the board, Brown wrote, “The general approach of the interlocal agreements used in Sarasota County has been successful over many years.” She noted that the county is working on a master plan for its parks and preserves, which affords staff and the board “an opportune time to evaluate the roles of the County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department and the municipalities in providing parks and recreation services.”

Though some clarifications of the interlocal agreements would be helpful, she added in the memo, “the rationale for providing a coordinated parks system for citizens remains viable and effective.”

Hines told Brown, “I agree with your recommendation because I don’t know a better way to go right now.”