On May 25, Sarasota leaders hope Water Management District Governing Board will agree to grant for water quality project on Bobby Jones Golf Club property

On April 8, a District subcommittee voted to deny the grant application, even though District staff had given the initiative a high ranking

This is a banner on the website of the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Image from the website

On Tuesday, May 25, the Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) will hear a presentation about a proposed water quality project on the Bobby Jones Golf Club property in Sarasota.

On April 8, the District’s Southern Region Cooperative Funding Initiative subcommittee voted to deny the grant the city had requested to help pay for the initiative.

The May 25 meeting “would be time for the City to make any comments supporting funding for the project,” Susanna Martinez Tarokh, the District’s public information officer, explained in a May 19 email to The Sarasota News Leader. “The full Governing Board makes project funding decisions, as the Regional sub-committees make funding recommendations to the full board,” she pointed out.

The meeting, which will be held in Tampa, will begin at 9 a.m.

To register to participate in it or to watch it via Zoom, go to this link. Advanced registration is required.

In a May 17 response to a city resident about the May 25 meeting, City Manager Marlon Brown wrote that both he and Mayor Hagen Brody “will be attending in person.”

Brown added, “Other staff and consultants can appear in person or by Zoom based on their comfort level.”

In an April 8 email to the city commissioners and senior city staff members, Brown addressed the grant denial vote of the subcommittee:

Sarasota City Manager Marlon Brown. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“It is with great regret that I share that our Water Management District grant request for [$1.5 million] for the creative wetland project as part of the Bobby Jones Golf Course and Park was denied on a 2 – 1 vote by a 3 person sub-committee of the Water Management District today. This project which would have restored wetlands, improve water quality by filtering tons of impurities and nutrients before entering the Phillippi Creek and then the Bay, restore native habitat, and provide for public passive recreation was highly ranked by the District’s staff. … A request was then made by the District staff to have the full board of the District review the project for consideration. Without a vote, that request was also denied.

“When the City is not successful with grants I do not normally share as there would be something technical that we missed or just due to the competitive nature of the grant,” Brown continued, “but as highly ranked as we were and having the support of the District staff, what happened today was highly unusual and something I never experienced in my 27 years of public service.”

Two organizations that represent neighborhood associations have joined the Sarasota City Commission in urging the full Governing Board to approve the grant — the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations (CCNA) and the Sarasota County Council of Neighborhood Associations (CONA).

In their April 28 letter to the SWFWMD Governing Board, the CCNA Executive Committee members wrote of the Bobby Jones project, “SWFWMD’s staff of scientists and environmentalists rated this project as High Priority, found it to be cost effective, and in line with the Governor’s directive to prioritize projects that help mitigate the harmful effects of red tide.”

They added, “With respect, the timeliness of this important conservation and restoration effort concurrent with the upcoming restoration of surrounding golf facilities is now. Deferring even a year might jeopardize the window of opportunity we have at hand. As the Executive Committee of CCNA, an organization of more than 30 city neighborhood associations, we respectfully request that you reconsider the ‘Sarasota Created Wetlands System’ grant application at the Governing Board level and approve the project for its benefits to the entire county and region as part of your 2021 initiatives.”

In her May 8 letter to the SWFWMD Governing Board, Kafi Benz, president of CONA, pointed out that her organization represents more than 70 neighborhood associations. Reprising some of the details included in the CCNA letter, Benz added, “We respectfully request that you review this project in the 2021 grant cycle and approve the Sarasota Created Wetlands System project among your 2021 initiatives because of its benefits to the region.”

Mayor Hagen Brody makes remarks during a 2017 City Commission meeting. File photo

In an April 28 letter to Joel Schleicher of Sarasota, vice chair of the SWFWMD Governing Board, Mayor Hagen Brody referenced a meeting that he City Manager Brown had had the previous week with Schleicher, who voted against the Bobby Jones project as a member of the subcommittee that reviewed it on April 8.

Brody noted that he was providing details that Schleicher had sought during their discussion. Among them, Brody pointed out that the County Commission is supportive of the Bobby Jones project.

“Vice Chairman Schleicher,” Brody continued, “this project should continue to be a proud partnership between the City of Sarasota, Sarasota County and the Southwest Florida Water Management District and your personal support for that partnership and this project is important. I know you to be a passionate advocate for our water quality and a committed public servant, and sincerely hope our discussions [and information in the letter that Schleicher had requested have] adequately allayed your valid concerns and sufficiently provided the details necessary to reconsider your position and support our funding request.”

The County Commission support

During the May 18 County Commission meeting, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis brought up a letter that Brody sent to Chair Alan Maio on May 11; Lewis noted that he had distributed copies to the other county commissioners.

In that letter, Brody requested the county board’s “consideration of an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between our two agencies with the goal of improving stormwater quality for all of Sarasota County.”
The mayor added, “In conjunction with proposed improvements for the Bobby Jones Golf Club and Nature Park, the City of Sarasota is requesting formal support from Sarasota County for the proposed Created Wetlands system. This stormwater quality improvement project represents one of the most significant opportunities in our region that will significantly reduce nutrient loading to our local waterways.”

Brody noted that “nearly 2.6 billion gallons of stormwater” flows through the Bobby Jones parcel.”

This graphic shows the plans the City Commission approved last year for renovations of the courses at Bobby Jones Golf Club and the plans for the wetlands project. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

County Administrator Lewis characterized the request in the letter as “Specifically, the city is looking for the county to actually participate in the project from essentially [an advisory position].”

The city and the county have an interlocal agreement that provides for the county to handle stormwater maintenance in the city, Lewis continued. The Bobby Jones project would be outside the scope of work covered in that agreement, he said. Therefore, that agreement most likely would need to be amended.

“I think that it’s important to demonstrate, as they go back before SWFWMD again, that the county will be involved to the extent outlined by Jonathan,” Chair Maio responded. “I think it gives a lot of folks at SWFWMD … a level of confidence — the county’s participation.”

“I agree,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler said, adding that he believes all the county commissioners support the Bobby Jones wetlands initiative. “My understanding is that if the county was involved,” Ziegler continued, the SWFWMD Governing Board would be more inclined to approve the cooperative grant.

Commissioner Nancy Detert voiced her support, as well. “Water doesn’t stop around a borderline.”

Detert added that she backs any initiative that will protect the bays.

Ziegler made a motion expressing the county’s support of the Bobby Jones project and the intent that the county would be a partner with the city.

Maio seconded it, and it passed unanimously.

The SWFWMD subcommittee’s denial

During their April 8 subcommittee meeting, SWFWMD board members considered the Southern Region Cooperative Funding Initiative applications for the 2022 fiscal year. That “program allows local governments and private entities to share costs for projects that assist in creating sustainable water resources, provide flood protection and enhance conservation efforts,” the SWFWMD website explains.

During the session, District staff presented the final evaluations and rankings of proposals for the 2022 fiscal year.

The final Governing Board budget — including the Cooperative Funding Initiative projects — will not be approved until September, the website notes.

The City of Sarasota project was among those that received a “High Priority” ranking, the Southern Region FY2022 Cooperative Funding Initiative document showed. The description staff provided said the city was seeking $1,511,535 for an 18-acre “treatment wetlands system adjacent to Bobby Jones Golf Course on property owned by the City of Sarasota …”

The city would match that amount for a total investment of $3,023,070.

If the city can proceed with the project, the District staff estimated that nitrogen loading in the bay would be reduced by 906 pounds per year; for total phosphorous loading, the expected reduction was put at 336 pounds per year. Further, the anticipated expense to achieve each reduction was characterized as “below the historical average.”

A graphic shows nutrient sources for red tide blooms. Image courtesy of Mote Marine Laboratory via Sarasota County

Both nitrogen and phosphorus are primary foods for the algae that causes red tide, scientists have reported.

“The Governor’s Executive Order 19-12 instructs the five water management districts to prioritize funding to focus on projects that will address harmful algal blooms and maximize nutrient reductions and this project is consistent with that directive,” the District staff document pointed out.

The project would begin “on or before” Dec. 1, the document said.

Schleicher, the Southern Region Cooperative Funding Initiative chair, has been a critic of the Sarasota city government, as evidenced in a July 2020 article that he authored with Jonathan Mitchell on a website called BEST SRQ. They wrote that the City Commission abdicated its responsibilities “to a hired, non-elected City Manager” after the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

The article was referring to former City Manager Tom Barwin.

With the state expected to lose billions of dollars in sales tax and other revenue as a result of the pandemic, Schleicher and Mitchell continued, they expected the city to see lower real estate values and, as a result, less property tax revenue. (That did not prove to be the case, as property values rose.)

“Unlike many other municipalities and enterprises facing reduced revenues,” they wrote, “The City of Sarasota took no actions to rationalize or furlough any full time staff, or other costs. The City is not a charity. It is run on our tax dollars and every dollar collected should be carefully and thoughtfully invested, on behalf of all of us who reside and pay the taxes to operate the City budget.”

Joel Schleicher. Photo courtesy of the Southwest Florida Water Management District

Schleicher and Mitchell added, “The City continues to plow forward like drunken sailors — which is actually an insult to the sailors that knew what they were doing …”

They included the plans to renovate courses on the Bobby Jones Golf Club property among the city initiatives that they singled out for further criticism.

The BEST SRQ website says, “Sarasota is one of the ‘best’ places to live — anywhere. We have terrific people; an awesome arts, museum and activities scene; fabulous weather and exceptional dining choices. What’s lacking is a comparable level of focused, forward thinking thought leadership, fiscal responsibility and transparent governance from our city officials.”

Thus, Joel and Diane Schleicher and Jonathan Mitchell launched the nonprofit effort called BEST Plan for Sarasota Inc. to “help provide information to the electorate,” the website says.

The SWFWMD website describes Schleicher as “a serial entrepreneur and operator of companies. His most recent endeavor is as the founder and executive chairman for Focal Point Data Risk, LLC, a nationwide leader in data risk management, which he founded in 2014.”

Former Gov. Rick Scott appointed him to the Governing Board in May 2017, and Gov. DeSantis reappointed him to that board in 2019, the District website notes.