Interim SCAT director gets final County Commission approval to solicit bids for private operator

Timeline calls for recommendation by end of the year

Interim SCAT Director Rob Lewis addresses the County Commission on Jan. 31. News Leader photo

With plenty of plaudits for the interim Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT) director, the county commissioners voted unanimously on Aug. 22 to authorize staff to proceed with efforts that could lead to their contracting with a private firm to operate the county’s bus service.

Rob Lewis, the interim SCAT director who also serves as the county’s governmental relations director, stressed during the board’s Aug. 22 budget workshop that one of the top priorities for the Request for Proposal (RFP) process the board approved in July is “assurance of employment” for SCAT’s workers. As he had in July, he pointed out again this week that the retention of those employees is required by federal law.

“I agree — and I think we all do — that the assurance of employment is a very important piece of this,” Commissioner Alan Maio told Lewis.

In another key part of his update, Lewis reported this week that, as recently as the previous day, he had talked with Manatee County representatives about whether they wanted to participate in the RFP. “We do not have an indication that they are wanting to [do so],” he added; therefore, “the draft is specific to Sarasota County.”

If Manatee County leaders change their minds, Lewis said, the draft could be modified, but “that would add a little bit of time to the process.”

In July, Lewis had indicated that if the draft were completed by the end of this month, he felt the commissioners would have a recommendation for a bid award in time to incorporate a change in SCAT operations into their budget for the 2020 fiscal year. That remains the goal, according to the timeline Lewis showed the board this week. It called for a ranking of responses to the RFP by the end of the year.

Staff is still planning to allow interested parties to have 60 days to respond after the RFP is advertised, Lewis added.

With the Aug. 22 vote, Lewis said staff would proceed with contacting the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) about the RFP process. The FTA’s formal review of the solicitation also is a necessary one, under federal guidelines, Lewis pointed out.

Further, Lewis said, “I want to be clear about this, that once a solicitation begins, it will be within a very prescribed procurement process.”

Any communication in regard to the RFP, he emphasized, “would only occur through the [county’s] Procurement Official.”

Two SCAT buses stop at the Westfield Siesta Key shopping center on Siesta Drive. The smaller vehicle is for para-transit customers. Rachel Hackney photo

Lewis explained that, according to standard procurement procedures, a county evaluation committee would review all the responses to the RFP and then rank them. Based on the committee’s recommendation, the commission would decide whether to go forward with the privatization process.

Lewis proposed three voting members of that committee: the county’s directors of the Public Works, and Planning and Development Services departments — Spencer Anderson and Matt Osterhoudt, respectively — and Lewis himself.

“Your selection of those three people is absolutely dead-on,” Maio told Lewis.

He had stood before “far too many selection committees,” when he was a principal at the Kimley-Horn consulting firm before running for County Commission, Maio pointed out, “where I [would] gag at some of the people [serving on those committees].”

Among the advisors he would like to be on the committee, Lewis continued, would be the directors of the Information Technology and Human Resources departments — Glenn Zimmerman and Chris Louria, respectively.

“Do you see any potential for a citizens advisory board [in the process]?” Commissioner Michael Moran asked and then added, “It doesn’t sound like that would be the appropriate forum for that.”

“This will be a very prescribed procurement process,” Lewis replied, as detailed in the county’s Procurement Code.

“No, sir,” Lewis told Moran. “We wouldn’t reach out directly to an advisory board.”

Moving forward

During the Jan. 31 budget workshop, the County Commission considered these proposed cuts for SCAT. All route changes have to receive federal approval, staff has explained. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On Aug. 22, Lewis also reminded the commissioners that they would continue to set policy for SCAT service, including fares and changes in routes, even if they contract with a private company for other facets of the department’s operations.

“You are the law-making body,” Lewis said.

Under the scope of work detailed in the RFP, he noted, the contractor would provide transportation technologies and bus stop maintenance. Additionally, it would handle labor negotiations and payroll — including benefits and retirement — as well as all federal reporting, state and federal grant requests, customer service, planning, scheduling, dispatching and “reporting of key performance indicators.”

County staff would continue to monitor the performance of the bus system and prepare and coordinate policy issues through county administration, which would bring those matters to the board’s attention.

Maio praised Lewis for following through on his commitment to completing the RFP by the end of this month. “I can’t complain that it’s not fast enough this time,” Maio said of staff efforts to respond to board direction. “Thank you, Mr. Lewis.”

“Rob, you just did an absolutely fantastic job,” especially as an interim director of SCAT, Moran added.

Since Lewis has been heading up the department, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said, “I feel like [the board’s interest in the potential of a public-private partnership has] always been given a fair shake …” Caragiulo pointed out that the talk of a switch in SCAT operations “may easily be prone to emotional outbursts.”

At the request of County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Rob Lewis for a vote on the next steps, Maio made the motion for the RFP process to continue on the timeline Rob Lewis had provided. Moran seconded the motion.

Just before the vote, Chair Nancy Detert said, “I could support going out for an RFP because it doesn’t commit us to anything other than reading [responses from interested companies]. It’s not an actual decision [on a change in SCAT operations].”

Then the board members unanimously approved the motion.

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