Lease for new Medical Examiner’s Office wins County Commission approval, with staff to continue to work on details for a second level

Board members express hope that extra estimated $5.5 million to $6 million expense can be halved

This rendering shows the District 12 Medical Examiner facility with a second level over the administrative offices portion of the structure. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In early December 2020, the Sarasota County commissioners unanimously authorized staff to continue negotiations with the ownership group that has proposed constructing a new county facility for the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office on about 4.4 acres located at 4480 Fruitville Road in Sarasota, near Interstate 75.

During that discussion, Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler called for consideration about the potential addition of a second story to the administrative offices portion of the structure. That would comprise 17,483 square feet.

Moran, who brought up the idea, talked of the county’s ability to rent out that space — after it purchases the new building from the ownership group, 4480 Fruitville LLC. Then the county could reap some return on its investment.

Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, came back to the board members on Jan. 12, explaining the results of the discussions that ensued with the ownership group, which includes John LaCivita, executive vice president of Willis A. Smith Construction in Sarasota.

In short, because of county land-development regulations, Eastwood explained, finishing out a second story over just the administrative offices portion of the building for District 12 Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega and his staff would add an estimated $5.5 million to $6 million to the overall expense. That range resulted from the need for 70 more parking spaces — the County Code requires one for every 250 square feet of space; the possible mitigation expense related to removal of grand trees on the property, to allow for the extra height of the structure; and the necessity of including an underground stormwater vault system, as the site is too constrained to enlarge the proposed stormwater pond.

This graphic shows the Medical Examiner’s facility site, with the green circles representing grand trees. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After close to 45 minutes of discussion, the commissioners unanimously agreed to approve the proposed lease for the single-story structure, while giving staff authorization to continue negotiations with the ownership group for a second story. In making the motion, Commissioner Moran indicated numerous times his hope that the talks between staff and 4480 Fruitville LLC could end up with about half the estimated expense for the second floor, as the board members agreed, repeatedly, that they wanted just “a cold, dark space,” as Moran described it. That phrase referenced a document included in the backup agenda materials that staff had provided the commissioners about the proposed second level.

Moreover, LaCivita told the board members, “I don’t think adding the second floor is going to delay the project.” Constructing the morgue, he added, is going to be the more intensive part of the undertaking.

Regardless of how the second-level space is used, “The minute we do a ribbon-cutting on this property,” Moran said, he would be willing to bet the price of a cup of coffee at Starbucks that the board would get a request from staff regarding the need for 20,000 more square feet “for something. … Mark my words.”

The commissioners said they hoped that, through the county’s site and development process, the requirement for the 70 additional parking spaces would prove moot. “I think there are uses that may not require as much parking,” Commissioner Ron Cutsinger noted. One of those uses might be storage space.

This is part of the document provided in the board packet that describes how the second floor could be constructed as a shell. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Having just been elected in November 2020, Cutsinger talked of tours of county offices that he took in late 2020, as he learns about county operations. “There’s boxes stacked everywhere.”

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis also noted the nature of site and development discussions, during which staff ultimately could agree to what Lewis referred to as an “alternate parking plan,” tailored for specific use of a new building that ends up being a modification of the developer’s original vision for the structure. “That’s not abnormal,” he added of such situations.

Moran acknowledged, “I’m throwing horseshoes and hand grenades here” when he proposed the board would pay much less than the $5.5 million to $6 million for the construction of a shell of a second floor.

He did stress the commission’s appreciation to LaCivita and LaCivita’s colleagues in the 4480 Fruitville team for the public-private partnership that had led to the Jan. 12 discussion.

Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho explained that if the commission that day approved the lease for a single-story structure, staff would work on all the details for that addition and come back with a proposed amendment to the agreement.

In the meantime, Botelho said, the design of the facility could proceed.

Eastwood also had noted that if the lease were approved on Jan. 12, 4480 Fruitville LLC anticipated the structure would be ready for Dr. Vega and his staff in January 2023.

This schematic shows plans for use of space in the first level of the administrative offices section. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Staff has a huge job ahead of  ’em,” Chair Alan Maio said just before the vote, noting that the county’s Development Review Committee (DRC), which will review all the site and development plans and sign off on them before the building gets underway, “is an essential part of what our government does here.”

The DRC members represent all the county departments and divisions that are involved in land development.

Based on his career as a principal for many years with the Kimley-Horn consulting firm, Maio indicated that working with the DRC to finalize details of a project could be intense. The commissioners, he said, want the Capital Projects and county administrative staff “to get really entrepreneurial” in those DRC discussions.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded Moran’s motion to proceed with the initial lease.

Commissioner Nancy Detert was absent from the meeting, Maio said, because she was “under the weather.”

Diving into the financial details

Already, Eastwood of Capital Projects reminded the board members on Jan. 12, the negotiations with 4480 Fruitville LLC had put the total cost of the new Medical Examiner’s Office facility right at the $23.5 million cap the Sarasota County Charter imposes on any solitary county project without the need for voter approval, during a referendum, to raise that amount.

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

Chair Maio said the extra construction funds could come out of impact fee revenue, for example, or even out of the county’s General Fund, which comprises property tax and gas tax revenue, for examples.

Further, Eastwood said, with a second story, another $497,000 would be added to the county’s annual lease payment to 4480 Fruitville LLC. The lease, she noted, had been expected to run from $4.4 million to $4.9 million per year, based on facets of the final structure. The lease would have an annual escalator of 3%, or the Consumer Price Index value, whichever was higher, she noted.

With property tax payments, insurance and operating costs, Eastwood in December 2020 put the total annual expense for the county as a tenant between $5 million and $5.6 million. The lease would be for 30 years, but 4480 Fruitville LLC would allow the county to purchase the property and building for $19.1 million after a minimum of three years; that time frame was proposed because of lending considerations with which the limited liability company will have to contend.