Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis marks eventful first year on the job

Resolving budget issues and working to finalize the River Road/Siesta roads swap with FDOT among the highlights, he says

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. Image courtesy Sarasota County

January was an important month for Jonathan Lewis — and not just because it marked his first anniversary as Sarasota County administrator. In fact, the anniversary was a secondary consideration.

The exact date in 2018 when his contract with the County Commission became effective was Jan. 16. When The Sarasota News Leader reminded him about that during a recent interview, Lewis explained the date’s real importance to him: It is the birthday of his wife, Tamara.

“We’ve known each other since fourth grade,” he added.

On Jan. 16, 2018, the county commissioners took less than 3 minutes to vote 5-0 to approve Lewis’ contract, elevating him to county administrator less than a year after former County Administrator Tom Harmer hired Lewis as an assistant county administrator. Lewis’ first day with the county was April 4, 2017. Prior to that, he was manager of the City of North Port.

In July 2017, Harmer announced that he planned to leave county employment to accept the offer of the Town of Longboat Key to be its new manager.

Lewis laughs about the fact that no one on the County Commission actually asked him if he would be willing to serve as interim administrator after Harmer departed. On Aug. 21, 2017, as the board members were conducting a budget workshop at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota, Commissioner Alan Maio put forth Lewis’ name.

“I was sitting over on the side [of the room],” Lewis explained, when he heard his name mentioned. “I looked up,” he continued, thinking someone would eventually say something to him.

“They didn’t even talk to me,” he said. “It just kind of happened.”

“They have been great about helping me in the transition,” Lewis added of the commissioners, making a point to mention Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who stepped down from the board last fall.

Lewis also readily noted that, during his first year on the job, they had to make “some really difficult decisions.” Among those was how to balance their budget for the 2019 fiscal year.

The biggest challenges in Year 1

After a 75-minute discussion in September 2017, the commissioners ultimately voted against implementing a 5% tax on public utilities to help balance the budget for FY18. They earlier had agreed they did not want to raise the property tax rate. Therefore, after approving the FY18 budget, they knew they would have to cut more than $5 million in recurring expenses to keep future budgets balanced.

This is the budget model shown to the County Commission on Aug. 22, 2018, reflecting the passage of neither homestead amendment proposed on the November 2018 ballot. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“Everybody was so worked up about the budget,” Lewis pointed out. Yet, by the time the commissioners held their final workshop on the 2019 budget — in August 2018 — Lewis and Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho were able to show them that the fiscal situation looked much better than it did when the discussions began in late fall of 2017.

During the News Leader interview, Lewis talked of the budget model showing that even if two state referenda on the Nov. 6, 2018 General Election ballot passed, the county would face no shortfalls in the General Fund for the 2019 or 2020 fiscal years, with a gap of only about $2.7 million for FY21. The General Fund is made up largely of property tax revenue.

That budget model included adding $2.5 million into the county’s Economic Uncertainty Reserve — the “rainy day” fund from which the commission drew heavily during the Great Recession to avoid major cutbacks in services.

Lewis pointed out to the News Leader that allocating the money to the Economic Uncertainty Reserve for FY19 marked “the first time in a very long time” that the board had been able to take such a step.

“In that moment, in that conversation with the board, and [with] that support from the board to make those decisions happen, [plus] all the work from staff,” Lewis said, he realized he was experiencing the highlight of his first year as county administrator.

And, as it turned out, the proposed additional, $25,000 homestead exemption the commissioners and staff feared would pass in November 2018 did not gain sufficient voter support. The second state referendum with a bearing on local government finances — making permanent the cap of 10% on annual non-homestead parcel assessment increases — did win approval, but with far less impact because of its temporary status prior to the election.

Other major projects

Maps show the segments of road to be swapped. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“A very close second [highlight of the first year], though,” Lewis told the News Leader, was ironing out the proposal with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for a swap of River Road to the state in exchange for the county’s assuming authority for roads on Siesta Key.

Then-County Administrator Harmer announced to the commissioners in the late summer of 2017 that staff had begun negotiations for that transaction. Last fall, the board members approved the principles laid out by FDOT.

The commission for decades had been seeking county help to improve and widen River Road. With thousands of new homes expected in the vicinity of North Port and Venice, along with the fact that River Road is a hurricane evacuation route for South County and Charlotte County residents, the board had made the River Road projects a high priority for many years.

In December 2018, FDOT announced that it would move up its funding allocation for its construction of River Road improvements from the West Villages Parkway to Interstate 75. Instead of keeping that project in the 2024 fiscal year, as the department had announced earlier, FDOT is preparing to undertake the work in the 2021 fiscal year.

The change in the timetable will allow for the construction of all of the River Road improvements from U.S. 41 to I-75 to begin in FY21, as the county already had scheduled its River Road project from U.S. 41 to West Villages Parkway for the same year.

“The [formal] agreements will take a while,” Lewis told the News Leader on Jan. 8, because of those changes prior to the end of 2018. He referred to “lots of parts and pieces” being necessary to completion of the swap.

“It’s a better outcome,” he pointed out. “The biggest thing is that we’re working on finalizing the agreement.”

When the News Leader asked county staff for an update week on the tentative timeline, Media Relations Specialist Brianne Grant responded in a Jan. 28 email that the agreement “is anticipated to be finalized this Spring.”

“I’m very confident” that the work will be concluded soon, Lewis said on Jan. 8. “Without being done,” he added, “it’s as close to a lock as one can get.”

These are the statements of principles between Sarasota County and the City of Sarasota — as of Sept. 17, 2018 —regarding an affordable housing initiative and the Marion Anderson Place Brownfield Site. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The third big highlight of his first year, Lewis continued, was seeing the county smooth out its relationship with the City of Sarasota. “The board set that out in probably my first meeting [as administrator].”

Even before Lewis’ hiring as assistant county administrator, the County and City commissions and their staffs were at odds over the issue of a final payment city staff said the county owed into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund. In fact, before Lewis marked the end of his first month with the county, the two boards debated their views during a meeting at City Hall that was contentious at times.

“Working with the administration at the city … [and] being able to come up with recommendations to put the issues behind us” has resulted in a much better situation, Lewis explained. An overarching agreement formally will spell out the steps the County Commission has discussed publicly, he indicated. “That one — I’ll be more confident when it’s done.”

Still, Lewis said, “just relieving that pressure, I think, has made it a lot easier to work on lots of things with [city leaders].”

Lewis also stressed that the County and City commissions and a variety of staff members at both local governments have been involved in the effort to complete the final agreement.

A day in the life

Commissioner Nancy Detert confers with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis before the start of the afternoon board session on Aug. 29, 2018. File photo

During the interview, the News Leader asked Lewis about a typical day on the job.

“I’m a morning person,” he responded. “I get up pretty early” — usually around 5:30 a.m.

“During the day,” he explained, “I very rarely will bring my phone into meetings with me.” If a person has something he or she feels is important enough to tell him, Lewis said, “I should pay attention,” instead of worrying about email.

As a result, he continued, “I get way behind on the volume of email.”

Mornings are when he catches up on his reading, he continued, including that email backlog.

A couple of days a week, he added, he goes for a run of 3 to 5 miles.

He typically is in his office at the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota by 8 a.m., after using his drive time from his North Port home to “catch up on phone calls.”

Then, by 5:30 or 6 p.m., he heads home.

Even though his daughter turned 14 recently, and his son is 10, Lewis said, “I’ll still put both of ’em to bed at night …”

His son enjoys reading before turning out the light, Lewis added, so Lewis usually goes through email then. “I tell him he’s doing his homework and I’m doing my homework.”

Lewis also indicated that he refrains as much as possible from taking phone calls in the evening.

His primary ways to relax, Lewis continued, are coaching recreational youth soccer, yard work and family time.

“I’m so lucky,” he said. “My kinds [are] fantastic. … They’re kids, but they really are good kids. … We like to do stuff as a family.” Even with a teenager in the household, he added, “For the most part, we enjoy each other’s company.”

A career in public service

Lewis received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of South Florida (USF), with a focus on history, and a Master of Public Administration from USF’s College of Arts and Science.

When he finished graduate school, he told the News Leader, “The job market was not great.” That was in the mid-1990s, he explained.

He had done some work with a consulting firm, handling strategic improvement issues, he said. “And I had worked retail.”

As he was looking for a job, he continued, he read a flyer on a USF bulletin board about an internship with the City of Clearwater. “My first week on the job there is when I decided that this is what I wanted to do.”

In Sarasota County Government, Lewis works with two assistant administrators as well as Deputy County Administrator Botelho. “I view it as all four of us and not the three of them,” he pointed out. The group meets frequently, he added. Nonetheless, between those sessions, he gets updates from Botelho and Assistant Administrators Mark Cunningham and Brad Johnson on initiatives they are supervising and other matters that arise under their purview.

Lewis much prefers in-person communication among staff members — and with the commissioners — to email, he said.

Asked if he could name his biggest challenge thus far in his job, Lewis replied, “Everything’s always a challenge. Otherwise, it would be boring. That’s why I picked this career. It’s supposed to be challenging.”