Kayak tour operators complain to commissioners about new bid process they say will put them out of business

Invitation for Bids advertised only three days after staff alerts business owners about proposed changes in programs at Turtle Beach and Ted Sperling parks

A map shows the Turtle Beach Park commercial tour operators’ launch site and the parking area for commercial trailers, as presented during a 2017 open house at the park. File photo

Kayak tour operators at Turtle Beach Park and Ted Sperling Park have protested a Sarasota County bid process launched in September that they say will put them out of business.

The Invitation for Bids (IFB) formally calls for suppliers “to provide non-motorized water vessel activities” at Turtle Beach Park on Siesta Key and Ted Sperling Park on Lido Key “for an initial term of three years.” Two annual renewals of the contracts are possible.

An Excel spreadsheet included in the solicitation shows estimated bids for operations at Sperling Park ranging from $960,000 to $360,000. For Turtle Beach Park, the range is from $720,000 to $240,000.

The bid period, which began on Sept. 21, originally was to end at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 4. However, The Sarasota News Leader learned this week that the deadline had been extended to 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 18. An addendum to the IFB explains, “Due to the receipt of a protest, the County is halting the solicitation process until the protest is resolved. The bid shall be extended two weeks to accommodate this delay.”

On Sept. 23, four business owners appeared before the County Commission during the Open to the Public period that morning to protest the process, stressing that county staff did not engage any tour operators in discussions about the proposal or allow them to comment on it before the solicitation went live through the county’s Procurement Department.

They also emphasized the fact that they learned of the plans for the solicitation only three days before it would be advertised.

Kris Fehlberg addresses the commissioners on Sept. 23. News Leader image

Kris Fehlberg pointed out that she is a biologist and environmental educator who worked for the county for almost a decade. More than 12 businesses with 50 employees will be affected by the IFB process, Fehlberg stressed, noting that the companies have been working “in good faith with the county.”

(Fehlberg is co-owner of BIOTICA Ecotours, the News Leader learned during an online search. Among the company’s offerings are coastal paddles launched from Turtle Beach Park.)

Not only is the change in county procedures being undertaken during a pandemic, she added, but also in the wake of “one of the worst red tide events in Sarasota history.”

These affected small businesses are already struggling, Fehlberg told the commissioners. The bidding process likely will lead to the end of her operation and her livelihood, she said. The solicitation has been structured so “only the highest bidder” will have the right to offer tours, she added. Yet, she continued, the solicitation “doesn’t take into consideration environmental protections” for park resources or require that bidders provide any details about environmental accreditations or whether they have had any conflicts with the county in the past.

As of Oct. 5, the News Leader found that companies from all over the United States had viewed the solicitation. Among the home bases represented were California, New Mexico, New York and Massachusetts.

“I believe this is counter to the county’s mission statement to protect [its parks],” Fehlberg added.

She asked that the IFB be put on hold until after county staff has engaged with the current tour operators at Turtle Beach and Sperling parks.

Another speaker that morning, Amy Tobin, pointed out of the tour operators, “These are not people getting rich.”

Tobin added, “My issue is the timing.” Why not give the businesses a year’s notice, she asked, so they could come up with alternative plans for county staff to consider. Otherwise, Tobin predicted, the bid awards would go to large, national companies.

This is a section of an Excel spreadsheet included with the IFB, which shows estimates for bids for operators at Sperling Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After two more speakers that morning pleaded with the board members for help, Commissioner Nancy Detert indicated her hope that county staff would take into consideration the local businesses “that respect our environment.”

Nonetheless, Detert pointed out to the tour operators, “We’re letting you use our natural resources for your own benefit.”

She did agree that the only three days of notice before the IFB solicitation was published was “probably too little [time].” Detert added, “I intend to meet with staff on this” and learn whether any improvements could be made to the process.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler also talked of his interest in learning more from staff about the proposal, including the potential for delaying the implementation of the changes.

Still, he praised Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) Department, saying, “She does a phenomenal job.”

A few words of caution

Even before the first speaker offered remarks on the issues, County Attorney Frederick “Rick” Elbrecht explained that the county’s Procurement Code contains a provision that prevents potential bidders “from communicating with county officials, including elected officials,” about a specific solicitation. If a potential bidder makes any comments to the commissioners that can be construed as advocating for the county to award his or her company a bid, Elbrecht said, that would make the company owner automatically ineligible to offer a response to the solicitation.

Therefore, Commissioner Alan Maio, who was presiding at the meeting in the absence of Chair Michael Moran, cautioned the speakers to be mindful of Elbrecht’s remarks. Maio stressed that the speakers should proceed only if they could avoid putting themselves in the type of position Elbrecht had described.

Commissioner Charles Hines said he saw no problem with allowing the tour operators to express their worries during the Open to the Public period.

“If they start talking about themselves,” Elbrecht told Hines, “they’re at risk. … They’ve been told how to limit themselves.”

Altogether, eight persons addressed the board members on the issue that day.

Aaron Pollard voices concerns to the commissioners on Oct. 7. News Leader image

Then, during the Open to the Public period at the start of the commission’s regular meeting on Oct. 7, one of the eight — Aaron Pollard of Surfit USA — appeared again to voice concerns.

He stressed of PRNR staff members, “They’ve decided to keep us in the dark. They decided to do this suddenly so we couldn’t organize …”

Commissioner Maio interrupted Pollard, asking County Attorney Elbrecht to offer the same caution Elbrecht had provided on Sept. 23.

“I understand,” Pollard told the commissioners after Elbrecht concluded his comments, which, once more, underscored the need for Pollard not to talk about any proposal Pollard might plan to make in responding to the bid.

That admonition from Elbrecht, Pollard added, is “one of the reasons more people aren’t here … ’cause everybody’s afraid that it’s going to make their chances less …”

Pollard said of the solicitation, “This is supposedly going to make less impact in [Sperling] Park,” including fewer parking problems and fewer environmental issues. “I have a hard time seeing that,” Pollard said. “Quite frankly, I think it’s just sort of a veil to try to kick us out of the park [so the county can make] more money.”

Following Pollard’s remarks that day, Commissioner Ziegler asked Elbrecht whether the commissioners could amend the Procurement Code to eliminate concerns Pollard had raised about company owners being reluctant to address the board members. “I just hate hearing that,” Ziegler added of the tour operators’ fears about that facet of the code.

Elbrecht replied that the commission could amend the Procurement Code if it wished.

“Hopefully, we’ll kind of look at that,” Ziegler said.

“I’ve had the same concern,” Commissioner Detert added. “I think the rule is too strict.”

A representative of Ride & Paddle by Siesta Sports Rentals, based on the southern part of Siesta Key, told the News Leader he preferred not to comment on the county solicitation. Another Siesta-based tour operator, who asked the News Leader not to identify him, voiced worries that offering any remarks to the News Leader potentially could result in his company’s bid being ruled ineligible.

Detert did tell Pollard on Oct. 7 that the commissioners had instructed staff “to spend a little bit more time” on the solicitation. However, she continued, “When you have 13 vendors at one spot renting kayaks, you’ve watered down your own income. We’re trying to have fewer, not only for the environment but to help [business owners], hopefully … [so they] can make a living …”

Then she told Pollard that the parks were “attracting too many vendors, and [that] needed some reining in a little bit.”

In response to a News Leader question about the reasoning behind the IFB, county staff wrote in an email, “As a result of the growth of this [Commercial Recreation and Tour Operator] program, staff was challenged to identify a mechanism that limits the available permits to aid in balancing the use of the natural resource while providing all interested individuals/businesses a fair and equitable opportunity to provide services in the park. An IFB provides an opportunity for the greatest number of vendors to participate versus a Request for Proposal.”

Details of the solicitation

This is a table in the revised IFB, providing details about the bid process. Image courtesy Sarasota County
This is another section of the Excel spreadsheet, showing estimated bids for operators at Turtle Beach Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

This new solicitation process comes about three-and-a-half years after county Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources (PRNR) staff expanded a management program for commercial non-motorized watercraft from Lido Beach to Turtle Beach Park. Then, companies voiced angst to the News Leader about having to pay $500 per year for a “medallion” per kayak or paddleboard. As staff explained it to the News Leader, a medallion is a certificate that proves the commercial operator who owns the watercraft has obtained a permit from the county and, therefore, has met the necessary requirements of the program, including adequate insurance.

In April 2017, as PRNR staff members held an open house on the proposed changes at Turtle Beach Park, Rebekka Cline, business development coordinator with PRNR, told the News Leader that only commercial operators registered through the program would be able to solicit customers.

A document available through the county’s Procurement Department explains that county staff “desires to accomplish the following program goals in the management of identified parks and delivery of services:

  • “Manage and balance access for public and Commercial Recreation and Tour Operators (CRTO) alike.
  • “Provide clear guidelines.
  • “Protect, respect, and preserve our outstanding natural resources.
  • “Support natural resource-based recreational opportunities through environmental stewardship.
  • “Promote visitors’ reconnections with the nature experience.”

It notes that the mission of PRNR is “To provide a premier parks system that enriches our community through participation, learning and stewardship.”

A revised Scope of Services for the solicitation, which the News Leader found on Oct. 15, explains that the minimum bid per medallion for Turtle Beach Park must be $250, plus an amount representing the tour operator’s monthly gross sales revenue. For Sperling Park, the minimum bid per medallion must be $500, plus a percentage of the monthly gross sales revenue of the tour operator.

This is a partial list of companies whose representatives had viewed the IFB as of Oct. 5. Image courtesy BydSync

A revised IFB in the solicitation package, which the News Leader also found on Oct. 15, explains, “It is the intent of the County to award a contract to the responsive and responsible Bidder(s) submitting the highest price per lot. Unless otherwise noted, Bidders must submit a price for all line items assigned to a lot to be considered for award of that lot. Bidders may respond to one or all lots but shall only be awarded one lot per group. If a single Bidder is considered the highest responsive and responsible Bidder for more than one lot in a single group, the County will make the final determination as to which lot is to be awarded to a single bidder.”

Additionally, Florida state sales tax “is due on all transactions,” the Scope of Servicesnotes. “The Concessionaire shall submit, by the 20th of each month, or as otherwise required by the County, a true copy of its monthly State Sales Tax return and a statement of operations showing daily gross sales from all categories of income in a form approved by the County,” the document adds. “Information shall be broken out by each location whether Turtle Beach, Ted Sperling, or both,” the revised Scope of Services emphasizes.

A concessionaire will be required to purchase the permit medallions at the start of the contract period, which is estimated as March 1, 2021, and annually thereafter. The document adds that 50% of the total medallion expense will be required within 10 days after the contract goes into effect, and then the remaining 50% will be due no later than 90 days after the effective date. “Full payment for permit renewal shall be due no later than March 1 for each additional permit year,” it says.

Further, the revised Scope of Services says, “Concessionaire is responsible for any damage to County or third-party property caused by the Concessionaire or their employees. Restoration shall be made to the County’s satisfaction.” It also notes, “Concessionaire shall submit participant numbers for both guided tours and rentals within system identified by PRNR, prior to scheduled use.”

According to other materials in the solicitation, a bidder “must provide references, demonstrating their experience [within the past five years] providing the services that are the subject of this bid … A minimum of three references [is] required.”

Another document in the package lays out all the details regarding insurance coverage any bidder must carry.