Nancy Detert says those should have been part of improvements seller paid for when county negotiated contract last year, instead of other items Sheriff’s Office sought
On July 12, 2017, the director of Sarasota County’s General Services Department explained to the County Commission that, this year, staff planned to refinance the loan the county used to purchase a new headquarters for the Sheriff’s Office.
Staff anticipated issuing a 30-year bond, Jeff Lowdermilk said, with a projected annual debt service payment of $1,090,000.
About five months earlier — on Feb. 7, 2017 — the commissioners had authorized the payment of $15,765,280 for the building at 6010 Cattleridge Blvd. in Sarasota to serve as the new home for the Sheriff’s Office’s administrative staff, the forensics lab and evidence storage.
During the July 12, 2017 discussion, Bill Spitler, director of research and planning for the Sheriff’s Office, pointed out that a previous County Commission had considered holding a referendum in November 2016 to help finance a new Public Safety Campus adjacent to the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road. The expense of a brand new Sheriff’s Office facility for the purposes the Cattleridge Boulevard structure would serve was estimated at $101 million, he added.
Commissioners Charles Hines and Alan Maio talked of the great savings to the county that the Cattleridge Boulevard building represented.
Last week, during the commission’s regular meeting on April 11, Lowdermilk was back before the commissioners regarding the issuance of the $20 million in bonds to refinance the loan the county had used for the Cattleridge Boulevard building purchase and other capital improvements.
The repayment of the bonds was being budgeted from general government revenues, starting in the 2019 fiscal year, a staff memo said. The annual debt service would be approximately $1,115,000, the memo added.
However, the April 11 agenda item also included a $1.3-million increase in the total expense for the Cattleridge Boulevard property. That prompted about 15 minutes of discussion, mostly expressions of dismay from commission Chair Nancy Detert.
She had met twice with Lowdermilk to discuss the situation before the board session that day, she told her colleagues. The focus of her ire was the need for a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system and a new roof for the Cattleridge Boulevard building, with the project encompassing that work set to begin in November.
Lowdermilk acknowledged that those improvements would begin only 21 months after the county conducted its due diligence on the structure before buying it.
Prior to the purchase, Detert pointed out, the county inspection report for the property made it clear that the roof and the HVAC system would last only two to four more years.
If someone were negotiating the purchase of a house, she continued, the person would not be able to get financing if the roof was going to have to be replaced within two to four years. Usually, to get financing for a house, she added, the buyer would need a report saying the roof would be expected to last another 10 to 15 years. (Detert has noted that she had a real estate license for many years and owned a mortgage company for an even longer period.)
Referring to Page 2 of the contract presented to the commission in February 2017, Detert pointed to language saying that the county would pay the seller $3,115,280 for constructing improvements the county wanted; that was part of the overall purchase price.
“To the extent the cost of the Purchaser Improvements is less than stated on Exhibit B,” Detert read from that contract, “Seller shall apply any unexpended funds toward the cost of replacement of the HVAC units and/or construction, purchase or installation of additional improvements requested by Purchaser that are not included on Exhibit B.”
In Exhibit B, she explained, “we spell out” how the $3,115,280 was to be spent.
“Keep in mind that we have a bad roof and a bad HVAC,” she added.
“I’m sure the Sheriff’s Office participated in [creating] this [list],” she said. Out of that $3 million, she continued, “they asked for fencing, bike storage, a new forensics building … 42 items.” Item 38 says, “HVAC,” she noted, with an accompanying figure of $120,000.
After talking with Lowdermilk, she continued, she believed that HVAC system was for the forensics lab. “None of [the money] goes for a roof or [an HVAC system for the entire building].”
As part of the April 11 agenda, Detert noted, the board was to consider an extra $1.3 million for the roof and the new building-wide HVAC equipment. “Why didn’t that come out of the $3 million?”
She likened the situation to buying a house and instead of getting a new roof or air conditioning system, “you got new carpets and drapes. … I just think that this was a pretty poorly done contract.”
She did point out that the negotiations on the contract took place before Jonathan Lewis became the county administrator. (Tom Harmer was administrator in February 2017; he took the job of town manager for Longboat Key, effective in December 2017. The board hired Lewis in early January.)
“So my complaint is about the contract,” Detert said. “I thought they bought glitz instead of practical items that they need, [and now staff has come] back to the board for another $1.3 million. … I’d like to have staff look into how this was negotiated. Why did you put us in this position?”
Detert continued, “At this point, frankly, I’m going to vote ‘No’ on this item. Why should I think a roof and air conditioning is important when nobody else did.”
The Sarasota News Leader this week spoke with Kaitlyn R. Perez, community affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, to ask whether staff wanted to comment on Detert’s remarks. The Sheriff’s Office did not provide any response.
Continuing her April 11 remarks, Detert suggested that the commission wait up to four years before determining whether the HVAC system should be replaced. “See if you get really hot and sweaty in that new building we just bought for you,” she added, directing her comments to Sheriff’s Office administrative staff.
“We were distracted by our lucky find of this building [on Cattleridge Boulevard],” she said of herself and her colleagues. “Fifteen million dollars is way better than $100 million. … But I still think we could have negotiated better with the seller.”
Lowdermilk confirmed that staff was aware of the expected life of only two to four more years for the HVAC system and the roof when the contract was negotiated. The county already is 14 months into the two-to-four-year period, he added.
“Then I feel manipulated into having to make a decision that should have been part of the original negotiations,” Detert responded. “Nobody spends $15 million to buy a building with a bad roof and a bad [air conditioning system] without major concessions from the seller. … I would just ask staff to be more careful about these negotiations.” The way that 20-page contract was handled, she continued, “erodes trust, as far as I’m concerned.”
Commissioner Hines then pointed out that if she had walked through the Cattleridge Boulevard building before the county bought it — as he did —she would have seen that it was designed for office purposes, not for housing a Sheriff’s Office’s operations. “Major interior improvements … were needed, many for security upgrades.”
He added, “It was a nice building, but a nice building for a business, not for a sheriff’s headquarters.”
Further, Hines pointed out, the county did not need to replace the HVAC system right away. What was more important, he stressed, was relocating Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office operations into a secure facility where evidence and records could be protected properly instead of having them exposed to flooding and rodent damage, as they had been in their previous, leased locations.
“Well, I get that,” Detert replied. Nonetheless, she pointed again to the list of items to be covered by the $3 million last year, according to the contract with the seller. “I consider a roof and air conditioning in Florida to be a necessity.”
Lowdermilk did note that the new HVAC system would be a more efficient one, “to better cool and heat that facility.”
“We’ll at least have two years of use of the roof and A/C from when we purchased the building,” Hines said.
“About a year-plus,” Lowdermilk replied.
Finally, Hines made a motion to approve the agenda items, including the refinancing and the adjustment to the county’s Capital Improvement Program to encompass the new roof and HVAC project for 6010 Cattleridge Blvd. Commissioner Michael Moran seconded it.
As promised, Detert cast a “No” vote, so the motion passed 4-1.