Board members looking at options to keep that project, plus a new Sheriff’s Office fleet maintenance facility and a new Central Energy Plant under the referendum cap
In two-and-a-half months, Sarasota County staff needs to return to the County Commission with further refinement of a proposal to expand secured South County courthouse and associated space on the R.L. Anderson Administration Center campus in Venice, board Chair Al Maio said this week.
That will enable the commissioners — including two new ones who will be sworn into office on Nov. 22 — to try to settle on a plan before they undertake a full review of their Capital Improvement Program priorities in February 2017. The latter session has been planned since mid-summer, when the commissioners agreed with staff that concerns about aging infrastructure could lead to a reordering of those priorities.
The decision to pursue that top-to-bottom review followed Sheriff Tom Knight’s request in May that the board abandon the idea of a November referendum encompassing a proposed fleet maintenance facility in South County and Public Safety Campus next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center on Cattlemen Road in Sarasota — both for his office — along with the South County courthouse plan. He was concerned, he told The Sarasota News Leader, that the already contentious presidential campaign and City of Venice plans for referenda would lead to county voters taking a negative view of the potential $170-million expense of the county’s proposal.
And while the board members did not like the South County courthouse option staff had plugged into a chart — showing potential ways to pay for that project and two others — the overall debt service would remain the same regardless of which courthouse option the board chose of those presented that day, Isaac Brownman, the county’s chief engineer, explained during the commission’s Oct. 10 regular meeting in Venice. That debt service would be about $1,040,000 per year.
The option staff had used was a new one-story structure to accommodate non-court related services along with renovation of the Anderson Center into courthouse-only facilities, plus the chambers where the County Commission meets. The total projected cost was $23,249,000.
The other two projects on the list were the Sheriff’s Office’s fleet maintenance facility, proposed on county land at the intersection of Honore Avenue and Laurel Road in South County; and a new Central Energy Plant to replace the facility in downtown Sarasota that serves the three jails comprising the county Detention Center, the historic county courthouse and the Silvertooth Judicial Center, among others.
The board can pay up to $22.6 million for each project without seeking voter approval during a referendum, Brownman explained. That figure is the cap set forth for the current fiscal year under the aegis of the Sarasota County Charter. Subtracting impact fee revenue and other sources of potential funding, the estimate for the fleet facility is $17.29 million; for a new Central Energy Plant, $13.43 million, Kim Radtke of the county’s Office of Financial Management told the board. If the commission chose to take out loans to cover both of those projects, she said, the resulting debt service could be added to the county’s millage rate. For the fleet facility, that would equate to an extra $4.33 per year for the owner of a house valued at $200,000, staff has estimated; for the same taxpayer, the annual debt service for the central energy plant loan would add $3.36 to the tax bill.
“It is not lost on us that we need all these things,” Maio noted of those projects, along with the new South County courthouse space. Nonetheless, he added, the board has repeatedly told administrative staff that it does not want to raise the county millage rate, which was set at 3.912 again this year — no change from the figure for past four fiscal years.
In response to a question from Commissioner Christine Robinson, Assistant County Administrator Steve Botelho explained that the nationally known agencies that set local government credit ratings would evaluate each borrow of funds for a project on an individual basis. “Our millage rate is very low,” he added. “We do have a lot of capacity.”
The county’s credit and bond ratings used to be a major focus of any discussion regarding borrowing money, Robinson pointed out to her colleagues. “I think that you all need to make sure that that becomes part of the next discussion,” she advised them, referencing the expected return of staff in January to lay out the latest information about the three projects.
Robinson and Commissioner Carolyn Mason both faced term limits, so neither could run for re-election. They will step down from the board on Nov. 22.
During his presentation, Brownman noted the multiple facets of a new South County courthouse project that needed to be considered, citing nationally known reference manuals. For example, separate circulation patterns should be incorporated for the public, for prisoners and for judges and related staff. Hardened ceilings are mandatory in areas where prisoners will be housed, he said; yet, acoustic ceilings are preferable in the courtrooms and office space. Different types of furnishings are desirable, too, he continued, depending on the area of the building.
Nonetheless, Brownman pointed out, accessibility and security are the two main features of a courthouse that have to be considered in its design.
“Our current facilities would fail every single one of those items right now,” Robinson said of his list, referring to the South County situation. “I was working in this building as a prosecutor when the roof was falling down. I was working in this building when defendants were knocking on the windows when I was working late at night,” she added later in the discussion. “This building, as it exists, is not acceptable for our residents, for our judges, for our prosecutors, for our [police departments], for our clerks.”
The board was meeting in the Anderson Center on Oct. 10.
Brownman and Brad Gaubatz, a project manager in the county’s Capital Projects Division, discussed in detail the six-courtroom and four-courtroom construction scenarios that staff had analyzed further following a May presentation. The former carried an overall expense of $45.1 million, Gaubatz said, while the four-courtroom option would cost $28.6 million.
If the board opted for a new four-courtroom building instead of one encompassing six courtrooms, Robinson suggested the project might bend up falling below the County Charter cap. When she asked Gaubatz whether that was possible, he told her that court-related space could be confined to the second floor of the Anderson Center, with other county offices on the ground level. Then court-related space only would be provided in a new building.
However, Gaubatz noted, the circulation patterns would pose security problems.
The latter is a fact of life with the North County courthouse and associated office situation, Robinson told him. Sheriff’s Office personnel and staff of the State Attorney’s, Public Defender’s and Clerk of the Circuit Court’s offices “all … walk across a very busy Ringling Boulevard to go to the courthouse, so we’re not willing to consider that for [R.L. Anderson]?”
She did not see the four-courthouse option as constrained as he did, she added.
Staff could go back to the stakeholders, Gaubatz replied, and work with them to refine the design. Still, he cautioned her, “I’m not sure there’s a kind of silver bullet” that would whittle the final expense to a level below the Charter cap.
Commissioner Charles Hines agreed with Robinson that cost was a major concern. “We’ve got to get past what we want, maybe, and get to what we need. … Someone’s got to make a tough decision.” He called for “some creative thinking.”
Central Energy Plant
At various times over the past several years, county staff has broached the issue of the age of the facility that supplies chilled water for air conditioning in a number of county facilities in downtown Sarasota.
On Oct. 10, County Engineer Brownman explained that the current capacity of the Central Energy Plant is 2,043 tons, though the buildings it serves require 1,926 tons of air conditioning. If the board wanted to connect the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County to the system, he continued, the extra demand would be 400 tons. If another jail were added to the Detention Center, that would call for 385 more tons of capacity, he said. That would bring the capacity to 2,711 tons, he added. With the allowance for redundancy and the ability to add other structures to the distribution system, the total tonnage he recommended was about 3,500.
Using a chart, he explained, “The CEP is not one single unit.” And as the system has grown older, he said, finding parts to service it “has become a real challenge.”
Industry standards show the end of life for some of the equipment comes as early as 2017.
Brownman stressed, “This is something we don’t want to fail.”
In October 2015, he told the board, one chiller was down for maintenance when a second one suffered an equipment failure. “We were hours away from all downtown buildings [on the system] overheating,” he said.
Cost estimates for a new CEP range between $14.5 million and $20 million, he pointed out. One possibility staff needs to explore further with the Office of the County Attorney, he continued, would be allowing a third party to build a new facility whose expense the county would pay back through utility fees. That method would necessitate no upfront costs, he pointed out.
“Actually, we’ve done no work on this at all,” County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh told the board in response to a question from Hines.
Nonetheless, Hines and Maio both voiced an interest in that prospect.
Manatee County used a similar method to complete a new central energy facility in 2015 at a cost of $9.8 million, Brownman explained, but that facility has a 1,500-ton capacity. It also is located on county property, he noted, while the county most likely would have to purchase land for the site of a new Sarasota County, adding to the overall cost.
At the conclusion of his presentation, Brownman recommended the board add a new Central Energy Plant to its priority list and find a way to pay for it.