SANCA and Sarasota County yet to agree on terms for proposed new operating agreement since County Commission in May agreed to additional funding

County Commission approves $50,000 expense for new shade trees at Benderson Park

This chart, shown to the County Commission on May 17, provides details about the SANCA funding request submitted to staff compared to the expenses of county staff managing Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

On May 17, the Sarasota County Commission agreed to give the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates (SANCA) — the nonprofit manager of the county’s Nathan Benderson Park —extra money for the next three fiscal years.

SANCA’s new board chair, Ronald Shapo of Sarasota, had asked for 10 years of additional help.

Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), reported that staff already had built into the county’s 2020 fiscal year budget a request of $1,189,000 for SANCA.

The same amount was to go to SANCA for the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years, the commissioners agreed.

Commissioner Alan Maio, a longtime vocal supporter of Benderson Park, pushed back the hardest at Shapo’s request for the decade-long commitment, emphasizing the need for SANCA to do a better job of marketing the park to the public.

Although known internationally as a championship rowing venue, Benderson Park is one of the most popular parks among all those the county owns, Commissioner Christian Ziegler has told his colleagues on multiple occasions, based on his discussions with staff.

Still, board members have acknowledged that more communication is necessary for the public to realize that the park offers numerous recreational opportunities beyond rowing.

Almost six months after that May discussion, county staff and SANCA’s board have yet to finalize a new funding agreement, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis reported to the commission on Nov. 5.

“We do continue to work on it,” Lewis added, noting that he is hopeful “that will be resolved in the coming months.”

He told the commissioners, “There are certain terms [sought by SANCA] that we can’t recommend.”

Sections of the existing agreement, Lewis said, were put there “to protect the county for the long term.”

This slide shows details of the negotiations during the summer. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A series of slides provided to the commissioners in advance of the Nov. 5 meeting noted the May 17 discussion. Then it covered the ensuing steps taken in an effort to craft a new agreement between the county and SANCA.

On May 20, one slide said, the proposed terms “were discussed with SANCA CEO [Stephen Rodriguez] at SANCA/County Monthly Operations Meeting.”

Then, on May 29, the slide continued, SANCA, at the county’s request, “emailed the County a draft amended and restated agreement.”

From June through August, a second slide said, five more steps occurred.

The negotiations amped up in September, according to a third slide. Five more meetings were conducted that month, the slide added. Then, on Sept. 27, it said, “SANCA’s counsel sent a letter to the Office of the County Attorney (OCA),” responding to a letter that Lewis had sent to SANCA on Sept. 25, “reiterating some contract requirements.” That slide further noted that the OCA “responded to SANCA’s counsel on [Sept. 30].”

Three more meetings occurred in October, the fourth slide pointed out. A special SANCA board meeting was conducted on Oct. 25, the slide said, for discussion of the latest version of the agreement. Then, on Oct. 28, the slide continued, “County received email from Ron Shapo, Chair of SANCA,” requesting yet another meeting for negotiations.

This slide offers more information about the negotiations in September. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Among the key terms the two sides have agreed to, a fifth slide noted, are the following:

  • County reimbursement of SANCA’s approved operating expenses up to $1,189,480 per year with a 3% escalator for the first three years of the term.
  • Establishment of a Capital Repair Fund, with a starting balance of $40,000, to which SANCA is to contribute $50,000 a year.
  • Removal of the requirement for a Capital Improvement Fund to hold an amount equal to 10% of the value of improvements made to the park.
  • A contract term of 10 years, with the potential for three 10-year renewals.
  • The county “may designate a Board member to be elected to SANCA board” — an initiative Commissioner Maio began in July.

Among the terms that have not been agreed upon are the following, based on the final slide:

  • Liability insurance coverage.
  • Responsibility for significant capital repairs.
  • Responsibility for property insurance.
  • Timeline for transfer of ownership of park improvements.
  • Required notice of termination or renewal.

A staff memo provided to the commissioners in the packet for their Nov. 5 meeting noted that, in 2014, SANCA and the county “entered into the first License and Operating Agreement for full operation of [Benderson Park]. There have been five amendments to the original contract.”

On a more positive note …

The restrooms at Benderson Park are near the playground, overlooking part of the lake. File photo

During his report to his colleagues during the Nov. 5 meeting, Commissioner Maio pointed to their unanimous approval earlier that morning of an initiative he launched several weeks ago. Shade trees for the park will be purchased with $50,000 from a fund into which staff deposits fines that property owners pay to the county for violation of environmental regulations.

Technically, according to a Nov. 5 memo to the commission from the county’s Office of Financial Management, the money for the trees will be coming out of the Reforestation Fund. That memo added, “Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources will work with SANCA on a funding agreement.”

Maio pointed out that he originally learned from staff that the $50,000 probably would cover the expense of 200 trees; however, he said, “I’m told now that we may be able to get more … for the same amount of money.”

On Sept. 25, he proposed the purchase of oaks.

Additionally, Maio said on Nov. 5, the SANCA board had identified $20,000 in its budget to put toward irrigation of the young trees after they go into the ground. He indicated that that paperwork for that planting should be completed within two to three weeks.

Maio made the motion to approve the allocation of the $50,000.

No one had signed up to address the Nov. 5 agenda item, Chair Charles Hines noted, and no commissioner offered a comment before the vote. “We love trees,” Hines said with a chuckle.

Cargo containers with equipment for teams stand on the grounds of Benderseon Park in August 2017, ahead of the World Rowing Championships. In the background, a vehicle is visible on Cattlemen Road, which runs parallel to part of Interstate 75 and part of a sidewalk around the park. File photo

As Maio continued his report later that morning, he reminded his colleagues that, in his capacity as their observer at SANCA board meetings, he had listened to a discussion about the need for more shade at the park. As a result, Maio said, he spoke first with members of the county’s Environmental Permitting Division — Howard Berna and Rachel Herman. Then, working through County Administrator Lewis, he was able to discuss the proposal with Rissler of PRNR.

“I’ve got to give four stars to our staff,” Maio said. “We went from ‘Hey, how about some trees?’ to done-deal document ready for us to sign. … This is going to be a great addition to what’s out there now,” he added of the trees.

“I think it will be the kickoff of funds being raised by the community, by SANCA, for the benches, the shelters and more trees,” Maio told his colleagues.

Finally, he noted that he planned to attend his third SANCA board meeting later this week.

The commission is awaiting a ruling from the Florida Commission on Ethics about whether the contractual arrangement the county has had with SANCA will make it feasible for a commissioner to serve as a non-voting SANCA board member.