Vice mayor criticizes Parks and Recreation Department director for failing to get updated annual maintenance expense estimate
On separate votes this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved the redesign of a public restroom planned on St. Armands and committed to covering the annual maintenance expenses associated with the facility after it opens before the start of the 2020-21 tourist season.
The first vote was unanimous, but Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie opposed the maintenance motion, after taking several opportunities to rebuke city Parks and Recreation Department Director Jerry Fogle for not obtaining a firmer estimate of the expense. A staff memo provided to the board in advance of the meeting put the figure at $66,670 a year.
With two new members having joined the board of the St. Armands Business Improvement District (BID) since the commissioners last discussed the restroom plans — in early September 2018 — Jan. 6 marked the first time the commissioners held a formal discussion about the project’s redesign.
Partly because of what BID Chair Gavin Meshad called the “pretty staggering” estimated cost of the original plans for two freestanding public facilities in the medians on St. Armands, the BID has proposed only one, Meshad told the commissioners. It will be in the west median at the intersection of John Ringling Boulevard and South Washington Drive. Along with three Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible restrooms, according to materials provided to the commissioners, the facility will have public seating, drinking fountains and bicycle racks.
Construction is to get underway after tourist season ends this year, Brandy Wiesner, operations manager for the BID, explained. It will open “no sooner than Oct. 1 of this year,” she added.
Plans call for it to be available to the public from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. A memo from the BID to the City Commission in advance of the Jan. 6 meeting pointed out, “Please note that the restrooms can be open and ‘unmanned’ for the hours before 11am, and/or after 7pm, as is the case in other City locations. Once the facilities are constructed and in use, any opportunities to reduce the number of ‘manned’ hours, or to expand the number of open, ‘unmanned’ hours, will be investigated accordingly.”
The city staff memo provided to the board also notes that since the last discussion about the St. Armands facility, in September 2018, the St. Armands parking garage had opened, and it has two public restrooms.
Further, Wiesner explained on Jan. 6, the redesign means the restroom will reflect “the more traditional character of the Circle …”
Commissioner Hagen Brody thanked the BID board members for that change, noting that he had argued against the original design.
The total cost to the BID for the project will be about $380,000, Wiesner said.
“For many years, the merchants, the residents, the property owners and the visitors have expressed the need for an accessible, clean, well maintained, secure and convenient public restroom facility [on St. Armands],” she pointed out. The Parks and Recreation Department’s Master Plan completed last year listed the project as its top priority, she noted.
When Brody asked whether the BID did follow up on his 2018 suggestion for investigating the potential of constructing the facility within the Circle, Meshad and Wiesner replied that the BID had done so.
“There’s no sewer line running through the park,” Wiesner said. Thus, the expense of the sewer connection would have been much greater.
“We did try to evaluate some other options,” Meshad added. “The costs were somewhat prohibitive.”
The center of the Circle is low ground, he continued, so it tends to retain water. Yet, because the Parks and Recreation Department’s long-range plans call for in-depth reviews of all city parks, Meshad noted, at some point in time, other options for use of the open land in the Circle might arise.
Vexation over the maintenance estimate
Then Freeland Eddie asked Parks and Recreation Director Fogle about the estimated annual maintenance expense, starting in the city’s 2021 fiscal year.
The staff memo indicated that that figure was based on the expense cited by the company — At Your Service — that handles the restroom maintenance in Bayfront Park, Freeland Eddie noted. When she asked why a more accurate estimate was not made available to the commission before Jan. 6, Fogle replied that he expected a refined figure this week. The holidays made it difficult to get a more accurate number in time for the Jan. 6 discussion, he said.
How could the commissioners be certain that the actual St. Armands maintenance expense would not be higher, Freeland Eddie asked.
The restrooms in Bayfront Park are “a little bit bigger,” Fogle told her, but representatives of At Your Service felt they were comparable enough in size to the St. Armands facility planned to be able to offer the estimate.
After further questioning by Freeland Eddie, Fogle added, “It’s probably on our fault for not reaching out sooner [to At Your Service].”
Commissioner Willie Shaw asked Fogle, “Do we have any idea … what ramifications … we have coming back [if the expense proves higher]?”
“I think it’s actually going to come in lower,” Fogle replied.
“But you don’t know ’cause you didn’t call ’em,” Freeland Eddie said, referring to representatives of At Your Service.
“Vice Mayor, do you have a question?” Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked Freeland Eddie at that point.
The Sarasota News Leaderheard no response from Freeland Eddie.
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown stressed that the city would not be paying for the maintenance until the 2021 fiscal year. During budget discussions in coming months, Brown said, the commissioners “would have a number of opportunities to see the numbers before you actually vote on [them].”
“It’s laziness for them … not to do due diligence,” Freeland Eddie replied, referring to the Parks and Recreation Department staff.
“We will have to figure out how to cover the cost, anyway,” Commissioner Brody pointed out. A broader review of city restroom maintenance expenses is warranted, he added, calling the St. Armands facility discussion “an opportunity for us to streamline a little bit in the upcoming year.”
The redesign decision
Ahearn-Koch did ask the BID directors why Sarasota architect Jonathan Parks no longer is involved in the project, as Parks had appeared with the BID group during the 2018 discussions.
Meshad explained that after getting the estimate for Parks’ design, the BID members said, “‘Let’s push the Pause button and let’s see … how can we get the cost down?’”
That led to a feasibility study, Meshad continued.
The BID board members even considered leasing space, he noted.
By the time they decided to go ahead with the construction plan, Meshad said, Parks no longer was working with the city in the capacity of “a continuing service provider.”
“Actually,” Meshad told the commissioners, “I think some of the fresh eyes on the [BID] board [helped the organization work toward] really a chance to maybe do something better. I think sometimes time plays in your advantage.”
The firm that has the current contract with the city for architecture and engineering services is CPH, according to a memo to the commission for the Jan. 6 meeting.