Process being pursued for building new facility that provides air conditioning to downtown Sarasota buildings could add months to the timeline

Commissioners question whether staff no longer feels urgency for completing project, even though equipment has failed in the past, and the plant cools the jail, among other facilities

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

For years, Sarasota County staff has cautioned the County Commission about the increasing urgency of replacing the facility that supplies air conditioning to the jail, the Historic Courthouse, the Terrace Building and the Lynn Silvertooth Judicial Center in downtown Sarasota.

Now county commissioners are questioning whether staff has embarked on a process that — while it potentially could save money — also could take too long to prevent a catastrophe.

As he has in the past, during the board’s June 21 budget workshop, Commissioner Alan Maio framed the gravity of the commission’s concerns by offering up a scenario: 1,000 inmates in the jail in August, with the indoor temperature rising because the Central Energy Plant (CEP) has failed, and staff is waiting on a part being air-freighted to the county.

“You must live in fear of getting that call at 2 a.m.,” he told Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, referring to a sudden cessation of the CEP’s operations.

Lowdermilk prompted the discussion by explaining to the board on June 21 that staff is scheduled to hear presentations on July 17 and 18 from eight firms that have responded to a county advertisement seeking a proposal for services that could lead to a fully private or public/private partnership for the construction of a new CEP.

Because Sarasota County is a charter county, under state law it can engage in an energy service company (ESCO) process through which a variety of construction proposals can be pursued for the CEP, Lowdermilk said. In fact — as Maio also noted — the idea for pursuing that process came from commissioners who had learned about it during a Florida Association of Counties meeting.

Jeff Lowdermilk. File photo

However, as Lowdermilk pointed out, the process potentially would entail an energy audit that could take up to six months. The goal of that audit, he said, would be to provide information about the rate of return of various energy-saving initiatives — such as installing LED lighting — that the county could pursue, along with information about different models for building a new CEP. The expense of the audit — $350,000 to $500,000, he estimated — would be expected to be covered by lower energy bills for the county over a 20-year period.

“Ideally, [firms] like to lump a number of projects together” to show the potential rate of return for the investment, he said. “We can pick and choose [specific projects].”

However, when Maio asked how long it would take to construct the new CEP after the audit were completed, Lowdermilk replied, “That’s a good question.”

If the county elected not to do the audit, Commissioner Michael Moran said, “we could shave six months off this [timeline]?”

“We could potentially accelerate it some,” Lowdermilk responded.

“We can change our own light bulbs,” Commissioner Charles Hines pointed out. “It seems like this has gotten really complicated, potentially really expensive and time-consuming, when we’ve been told for over two years now that [replacing the CEP] is an urgency: ‘This thing could fail tomorrow.’ I’m not hearing the urgency in your voice.”

“Certainly, there’s an urgency,” Lowdermilk told Hines. However, the value of pursuing the ESCO process is that “it gives us insight into different models, something that we would have a difficult time assessing ourselves.”

Lowdermilk and County Administrator Tom Harmer added that an update will be scheduled for the commission after staff meets with the companies and has had time to assess their offers.

Four years later …

A graphic explains the operations of the Central Energy Plant and shows its location in Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In March 2013, county staff unveiled a proposal for moving Sheriff’s Office staff to a “campus” near Interstate 75 and constructing a new 10-story building in downtown Sarasota that would encompass additional jail space, more courtrooms and a new CEP. Several Sheriff’s Office divisions will be moving later this year — probably in early September, Lowdermilk said on June 21 — to a three-story building the county has purchased on Cattleridge Boulevard in Sarasota. Yet, while the plan for a new structure in downtown Sarasota has been shelved, the need to replace the CEP has not diminished.

During an Oct. 10, 2016 presentation to the commission, Chief County Engineer Isaac Brownman 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.”

Based on industry standards, he added, the end of life for some of its equipment could come as early as this year.

In October 2015, Brownman noted, 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.”

At that time, cost estimates for a new CEP ranged between $14.5 million and $20 million, he pointed out.

On May 1, the request for energy performance contracting services the county Procurement Department advertised included a scope of work that said, “The primary focus is to select a qualified Contractor to design and build Sarasota County’s Central Energy Plant. The existing plant was built in 1997 and is approaching the end of its life cycle.”

Responses were due on June 14.

About that audit …

A chart explains the ESCO process allowed under state law for charter counties, such as Sarasota. Image from the Florida Department of Management Services

When asked about how his department would pay for the energy audit, Lowdermilk explained on June 21 that funding is available through the county’s Capital Works division of the Public Works Department. If staff chose not to pursue the audit, he added, the funds are needed for other projects.

Commissioner Moran also asked about the $1.4-million debt service expense built into future budget models for the county’s General Fund, in the event the board ultimately decides to handle the CEP project itself.

Steve Botelho, deputy county administrator and the county’s chief financial management officer, responded that the figure was incorporated into the budget forecasts beginning in the 2020 fiscal year, as a “worst-case scenario.”

Moran also asked for clarification that the energy audit would be undertaken by one of the eight firms that had responded to the advertisement regarding the CEP.

“Presumably, yes,” Lowdermilk replied.

Would that preclude the same firm being selected to construct a new CEP? Moran asked.

“Not through an ESCO process,” Lowdermilk told him.

The firms that responded to the advertisement, Lowdermilk pointed out, are approved under state guidelines to handle such work and are even linked to the state ESCO statute.

(Among those listed on the Florida Department of Management Services website, The Sarasota News Leader found, are Florida Power & Light, Honeywell, Siemens Industry and Trane.)

County Commissioner Alan Maio. File photo

Commissioner Maio asked whether staff believes, as part of the competition for the county contract, the companies making presentations in July will include audit proposals. Lowdermilk replied that that is the expectation.

County Administrator Harmer told the commissioners that staff would work with Lowdermilk to provide more background on the entire process and the next steps after the presentations have been completed. Staff also will look into how other counties have pursued the ESCO process, Harmer said.

If the decision is made to scrap the process, Maio asked Lowdermilk, “We’re starting all over again?”

“I’d say we’d have the value of knowing the different models [for building a new CEP], which … certainly [will have] saved us some time [that would have been put into research].”

Still, Lowdermilk acknowledged, if the decision were made to cease the ESCO process, the county would have to pursue the traditional method of designing and then building the new county structure.

As illustrated by recent projects, it generally takes years, not months — from the time the funding is secured and the design begins — for the county to complete a new construction project.