Opening of two libraries on Sunday afternoons as pilot program wins initial County Commission support

Board members also hear updates on projects planned over the next five years, including new Central Energy Plant and realignment of Cattlemen Road/Palmer Boulevard/Packinghouse Road ‘triangle’

Selby Public Library is in downtown Sarasota. File photo

With its typically more intense budget workshops just weeks away — starting on June 18 — the Sarasota County Commission already has provided staff direction on a number of issues, including funding a six-month pilot program to open two libraries on Sundays.

Among other priorities are the continuing work on the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota, which provides heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) services to a number of county facilities, including the jail; new pickleball courts on Pompano Avenue near the Sarasota County Fairgrounds; and more bus shelter construction.

Prior to their May 17 review of the county’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP) for the next five fiscal years — 2020 through 2024 — the commissioners heard from two representatives of the Community Advocacy Team of the Library Foundation for Sarasota County. They offered pleas for the Sunday pilot program and for additional funding for library collections in the 2020 fiscal year, which will begin Oct. 1.

Dan Bailey, a partner with the Williams Parker law firm in Sarasota, told the board, “I can recall the good times when we had libraries open on Sunday afternoons,” before the Great Recession began.

Four of the facilities were open from 1 to 5 p.m., he pointed out.

The Community Advocacy Team (CAT) requested that the commission consider a pilot program at Selby Library in downtown Sarasota and the Jacaranda Library in Venice, Bailey added. Approximately 20% of the homes in the county have no internet service, Bailey stressed. “Children often need that [access to libraries] for getting homework done.”

Fletcher Rush, an attorney with the Farr Law Firm in Venice, then talked of the fact that the Library Foundation is halfway to its goal of raising $2.1 million for Creation Stations within the county libraries. Those centers enable patrons to use 3D printing equipment and sewing machines, for examples.

He then turned to the issue of the collections. They “are the lifeblood of our libraries,” Rush stressed.

Not only should the county be spending more money on books, he indicated, but also, additionally, “We need to be reaching those folks in our community that are underserved” by providing other materials, such as study and test preparation guides.

In response to a question later from Commissioner Alan Maio, Sarabeth Kalajian, director of the Libraries and Historical Resources Department, said she planned to propose an extra $150,000 in her budget for the 2020 fiscal year for collections. That will be part of her presentation during the June workshops, she added.

Chair Charles Hines then asked if she needed direction from the commission to plan on the pilot program for Sundays.

The Jacaranda Library is in Venice. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“It’s not currently in Sarabeth’s [FY20] budget,” County Administrator Jonathan Lewis pointed out. If the board wants funding for that in the budget, Lewis added, staff will take the necessary steps.

Commissioner Michael Moran immediately offered his support. “I was that kid that used the library on Sundays, so this is not a stretch at all to me to support such a thing.”

“I have not made up my mind yet,” Maio told Kalajian. “I want to see exacting numbers from you,” he told her: a proposal for keeping two libraries open just four or five hours on Sundays for six months, beginning Oct. 1.

That will put more demand on the county’s General Fund, Maio pointed out, which is its most constrained source of funding, staff has emphasized. The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue. (See the related article in this issue.)

If the board approves a pilot program, Maio continued, he also would like to see “some quantifying numbers of how much usage” results from those extra library hours.

Hines told Kalajian he would like her thoughts on which would be the best two libraries for the pilot program, as well as details about how the extra hours would affect her staffing. Hines added that he was not in favor of having to hire extra personnel with no certainty that they would be able to remain in county employment if the commission chose not to continue the Sunday hours after the pilot program ended.

Nonetheless, Hines said, “I do believe that there’s a bigsegment in our community that needs those Sunday hours,” especially students and people looking for jobs or career advancement.

Sarasota County Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Maio also pointed out that about 51% of the approximately 42,000 students in the Sarasota County School District qualify for free or reduced-price lunches as a result of their families’ income levels. He easily could believe, he continued, that the families of those children “certainly don’t have the money to wire up their house or apartment with internet.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler, who was just elected to the board in November 2018, asked Kalajian about the Sunday usage before the recession.

“For four hours, it’s a pretty high usage,” she replied. Library staff saw students, families “and working folks who needed access to technology,” she said, along with people who were unable to go to a library at any other time of the week.

As for extra funding for the collections: Maio noted that he recently requested two books from the library he uses. He was put down as No. 88 on the waiting list for one; No. 77, for the other, he noted. Yet, he understood that staff had ordered 30 copies of one of those books. “I will entirely support [more funds for the collections].”

Hines then made it clear to Lewis that the commission consensus is for staff to plan on the pilot program for the FY20 fiscal year budget.

Pickleball, jail projects and road construction

During the budget workshop, each department director took time to review top priorities for the next fiscal year. Among their comments were the following:

  • Nicole Rissler, director of the Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, noted that her FY20 budget includes a proposal she presented to the board several weeks ago, regarding a plan for new outdoor pickleball facilities on Pompano Avenue. Twelve dedicated courts will be created, she said, in conjunction with use of the property as a trailhead for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail.
A graphic shows the proposed layout of the pickleball courts, with parking spaces and the former driver’s license facility on Pompano Avenue. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The site previously was home to a Sarasota County Tax Collector’s Office driver’s license facility. Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates and her staff took over the building from the state after the Legislature several years ago mandated that tax collector’s offices handle all driver’s license work. The property is just south of the Sarasota County Fairgrounds.

The remodeled interior will contain a community room and office space, Rissler said on May 17, serving users of both the pickleball complex and The Legacy Trail. The project’s expense has been estimated at $560,000.

  • Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the General Services Department, told the board that an extra $4.5 million in the sales tax — or Surtax 3 — revenue the county receives has been dedicated to projects for the jail over the next five fiscal years, pending a final commission vote on the Capital Improvement Program.

However, he continued, he would need to come back to the board later regarding a new $2-million request for a door-locking project in the East Jail that “will enhance the safety and security in the jail.”

Regarding the Central Energy Plant: Lowdermilk noted that the design was at the 90% completion point.

A graphic shows the facilities served by the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Further, he said he has been working with City of Sarasota staff on several issues related to the site of the new facility, which will be a section of the surface lot next to the county’s parking garage located at the intersection of School Avenue and Ringling Boulevard. For example, the county will need city approval of what Lowdermilk characterized as “a major encroachment” into Adams Lane, as well as an easement “in a very small part” of Payne Park. Further, he said, county staff will have to renegotiate a parking agreement with the city.

After the Central Energy Plant design has been completed, Lowdermilk said, he would be back before the commission with the proposed Guaranteed Maximum Price (GMP) of the facility. He hopes that staff will have secured the necessary city permits for the project about the same time the GMP is ready for board consideration, he added.

  • Among the projects County Engineer Spencer Anderson reviewed were plans for construction on Cattlemen Road from Bahia Vista Street to Packinghouse Road, including a realignment of the intersection at Palmer Boulevard, Packinghouse Road and Cattlemen Road — “That triangle of roads there that has congestion,” as he put it.

North Cattlemen will be widened to four lanes up to Packinghouse, he added.

An aerial map shows the area of Palmer Boulevard, Cattlemen Road and Packinghouse Road in the eastern part of the county. Image from Google Maps

Construction is planned to start near the end of the 2020 fiscal year, Anderson noted.

A chart Anderson showed the board listed the expense of that project at $1.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year, with another $3.5 million needed in fiscal years 2021 through 2023.

  • Rob Lewis, interim director of Sarasota County Area Transit (SCAT), reported that by the end of this fiscal year, 14% of the 209 county bus stops will have shelters, if all goes according to plan.
A graphic provides details about some of SCAT’s plans for the next five fiscal years of the Capital Improvement Program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Adding shelters has been a priority, especially, of Commissioner Maio. On May 17, Maio told Lewis, “You are making progress [but] for heaven’s sake … can’t we get a bench [at stops that see heavy demand]?”

“I can’t take it anymore, driving down the road, [seeing] elderly people, moms with babies, sitting in the dirt or the grass,” Maio continued.

He then indicated he hoped his colleagues would agree with him on that request for benches.

After no other board member offered a comment, Rob Lewis told Maio, “Understood.”