Hamilton Building lease approved, but county commission holds off on renovations until staff can prove no new health concerns may arise

Testing underway on whether the Venice Library site can support a new facility; county staff announces details about expanding temporary services, including a shuttle once a week to Jacaranda Public Library

The Sarasota County Commission sits in session. File photo
The Sarasota County Commission sits in session. File photo

A 4-1 Sarasota County Commission vote and a 4-3 Venice City Council decision on March 8 cleared the way for the county to lease the 9,475-square-foot Hamilton Building as a temporary space for a public library until a new facility can be built.

However, the County Commission chose to wait on documentation about assessments of the Hamilton Building — including air quality and asbestos testing — before giving County Administrator Tom Harmer the go-ahead to spend $250,000 on transforming the interior into appropriate space for library services. Harmer will provide a full report on the health studies at the same time he returns to the board with a contract for a firm to undertake the renovations in the Hamilton Building, he said.

A separate motion on March 8 by Commissioner Christine Robinson to direct Harmer to open the county’s Jacaranda Public Library in Venice on Sundays failed on a 2-3 vote. She said she felt the extra hours would help “meet the gap” in services created by the Jan. 30 closing of Venice Public Library because of concerns about the impact of mold in that building on the health of staff, volunteers and patrons.

However, Commissioner Carolyn Mason responded that her biggest concern was the impact of that action on the county’s budget. Moreover, Mason continued, staff at other libraries might grow concerned that the board would move toward a return of Sunday hours at other facilities. She noted that the board chose to cease Sunday library services during the Great Recession to conserve funds.

Chair Al Maio joined Robinson in supporting the Jacaranda Library motion, while Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo and Commissioner Charles Hines voted with Mason to oppose it.

Sarabeth Kalajian. File photo
Sarabeth Kalajian. File photo

Additionally on March 8, Sarabeth Kalajian, the county’s director of library services and historical resources, pointed out that the kiosk library patrons have been able to use in the Venice Community Center will be replaced next week by more expansive offerings in a room in that facility, which will provide services until a long-term temporary library location is ready. The room will have computer access, a copier and printer and a larger browsing collection, she noted.

Further, the first meetings will be conducted on March 21 to allow members of the public to participate in the planning of a new library to take the place of Venice Public Library, Kalajian reported. The morning session will run from 10:30 a.m. to noon; the second, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Future meetings will be scheduled.

In the meantime, Kalajian told the County Commission, the architect selected to design the interior of the Hamilton Building for the temporary facility is at the 90-percent mark with that work, and it is to be completed by March 25.

Further, she noted, a solicitation for architectural and engineering services related to the design of the new library was posted on March 4, with responses due back April 6.

During almost an hour of County Commission discussion on March 8, Robinson also sought clarification about whether the county would be able to erect a new facility on the site of the closed facility. Jeff Lowdermilk, director of facilities and fleet in the county’s Public Works Department, told her that results of a geotechnical survey are due by March 25; those should indicate whether the soil is suitable for construction of a new facility similar to the existing building.

Harmer explained that the geotechnical survey would indicate the type of foundation that would be necessary, which might entail a higher expense. For example, he said, it might show that the building would have to be constructed on pilings.

In other words, Robinson pointed out, rebuilding on the site could be cost-prohibitive. “We have to be real clear … and speak in laymen’s terms about this issue, to make sure that it’s well understood,” she added.

“We don’t see anything right now that couldn’t be remediated or taken care of [on the site],” Lowdermilk told her.

Robinson also expressed displeasure that the report would not delivered to staff until after the March 21 public meetings on planning the new facility.

Lowdermilk said staff “could possibly have [the materials] earlier.”

“I think you should tell our consultant he needs to have it by the 21st,” Chair Maio told Lowdermilk. “Just get it done.”

“We will do everything we can to expedite that,” Lowdermilk responded.

Venice Community Center. Photo from the Venice Information Center website
The Venice Community Center will have expanded public library offerings starting next week. Photo from the Venice Information Center website

In other updates, Kalajian reported that a shuttle will begin running twice daily, one day a week, from the Venice Community Center to Jacaranda Public Library at 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd. in Venice. It will leave the Venice Community Center (VCC) at 9:45 a.m. and return at noon, she said. The second trip will start immediately after the shuttle arrives from Jacaranda Library; the shuttle then will return to VCC about 3 p.m.

Staff members will be on the first few trips, she said, so they can monitor how the service functions. If ridership slows down, Kalajian added, staff will look into promoting it more. “We hope that people will take advantage of it.”

A step forward

The Hamilton Building is owned by the City of Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County
The Hamilton Building is owned by the City of Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The lease for the Hamilton Building is for three years with two, one-year renewals, with the county to pay $10 per year, County Administrator Harmer explained. The terms also call for the county to cover the full expense of interior improvements, as well as the painting of the exterior and signage. In turn, the City of Venice will be responsible for upkeep and repairs of all major building systems — including the air conditioning — and the roof.

“There is no perfect spot in this scenario,” Commissioner Hines pointed out in making the motion to approve the lease. Nonetheless, he added, the Hamilton Building is “usable space.”

“I’m just in a real difficult spot with this,” Vice Chair Caragiulo told his colleagues. “I’d like to have a clear and concise plan of what we are doing to mitigate the health issues that we have, because that’s what we had presented to the folks.”

Earlier in the meeting, Caragiulo asked for more details about the cleaning and moving of materials from the closed library. “What is really happening? What’s behind this? I just think we need to be very clear.”

It seemed to him, he said, that the idea of cleaning the materials on site and then moving them elsewhere did not make sense.

“I understand,” Kalajian replied, adding that some of the moving companies contacted by county staff are “not eager to transport items … that may have been exposed [to the mold].”

County staff is getting advice both from the state library system, she continued, and from workers at libraries where similar situations have occurred, she continued. One recommendation, she said, is that items be cleaned and immediately moved to another storage site. Another option is that they be relocated to another site, cleaned and then moved again, she added.

“I want someone from the health side telling us what to do,” Caragiulo replied, “not someone moving the materials telling us what should be done.”

“I understand,” Kalajian told him.

Documents provided to the County Commission showed the areas to be leased. Image courtesy Sarasota County
Documents provided to the County Commission showed the areas to be leased. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When he next asked about the furniture from the closed library, which he understood potentially could used in other libraries, Kalajian explained that all of it would be sanitized first, adding that a specific process exists for that work.

“Maybe we can get the furniture people to do the books,” Caragiulo responded. “These asymmetries … are not giving me that warm and fuzzy feeling that I would like to have on this.”

As soon as she had the responses from the contractors about the exact sequence of events, Kalajian said, she would let Caragiulo know.

Later in the discussion, she told him that protocols for the cleaning do exist.

“I want to see and be comfortable with what those are,” he said.

Chair Maio noted that he had questions similar to Caragiulo’s. “We need to anticipate what the average citizen who does not do what you do [or what other county employees do relative to this process] — what they might be thinking,” Maio told her.

“Your point is taken,” she replied.

Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo
Vice Chair Paul Caragiulo. File photo

In a follow-up email to Harmer later on March 8 — which he forwarded to the commissioners — Kalajian wrote, “Books from the library are not being moved out of the building to other places until they are cleaned. I have spoken with the Library Manager to confirm that staff is not and will not [her emphasis] take books or media from the library to fulfill reservations for items patrons request. If it was expressed that items would be taken from the library, the Manager erred on that. The manager now knows that cannot occur.  Nothing will be moved from the library without appropriate cleaning.”

The Venice City Council vote

During the Venice City Council’s regular meeting on March 8, discussion ensued about the fact that the lease for the Hamilton Building called for the city to handle any repairs to major systems.

Mayor John Holic pointed out that a standard commercial lease requires the entity renting the structure to pay for any air conditioning repairs, for example.

“We’re receiving $10-a-year rent,” he added, which would not provide enough revenue to cover major expenses.

In response to a question about whether the city could afford costs potentially adding up to $100,000, City Manager Edward Lavallee replied that the city’s fund balance has sufficient funds to cover that amount.

Still, Holic pointed out, that when the city bought the building, it planned to tear it down and create parking spaces. Therefore, it did not matter that the county would be paying between $20,000 and $24,000 to extend fiber optic cable for Internet services to the structure, for example, or that it plans to upgrade the bathrooms to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations.

“This is a giveaway,” he said of the lease.

Venice City Councilman Bob Daniels. File photo
Venice City Councilman Bob Daniels. File photo

Councilman Bob Daniels noted that the city pays $1,500 to $2,000 a month to maintain the Hamilton Building as it is. “I think this could be a very nice partnership with the county,” he added.

“It’s taxpayer money,” Councilwoman Jeanette Gates said. “Whatever pot it’s coming from, it’s all taxpayer money,” she continued, noting that the taxpayers want a library on the island in Venice.

When the vote was taken, Council members Deborah Anderson and Fred Fraize joined Holic in opposition to the lease. Vice Mayor Kit McKeon, Daniels, Gates and Councilman Richard Cautero voted in favor of it.

Plans on hold

During the March 8 County Commission meeting and discussion, Commissioner Hines originally included in a motion the authorization for the county administrator to approve a contract for improvements in the Hamilton Building at an expense up to $250,000.

However, Commissioner Robinson told her colleagues, “I have a level of discomfort at this point …”

Until the board knows whether any new health concerns could arise from providing library services in the Hamilton Building, she cautioned that the board should hold off on starting the renovations.

“It makes very good commonsense,” Hines replied. “You don’t want to start spending $250,000 … only to turn around and find out there’s mold in that building, too. We would look like incredible fools.”

When Hines asked what level of documentation she felt would be sufficient, Robinson responded, “I think it’s up to staff to prove [the safety of the building] to us.”

Robinson also asked about mold in the Venice Community Center. Lowdermilk, the facilities and fleet manager, explained that he had met with a representative of the City of Venice’s Public Works Department, and they had visually inspected the area where county staff will be expanding the temporary library services. “I feel strongly hat the room is safe for the expansion that we have planned,” he told Robinson.

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

When Robinson asked about the city’s testing for mold in the Community Center, Lowdermilk replied that the last such undertaking was at the end of 2014, when tile was pulled up and samples removed. All the problems seemed to be “encapsulated under the tile they noticed buckling,” he said.

“This was a concern for me in expanding in Venice Community Center beyond just a kiosk,” Robinson pointed out.

In response to further questioning, Lowdermilk explained the breadth of the problems in the closed Venice Public Library while the incidence of mold in the Community Center seems to be limited to three discrete areas. “It has absolutely no visual manifestations of any problems right now,” he added of the VCC.