Anticipated tens of millions of dollars in expenses over the next decades a big motivator for relocation of offices
In 2003, then-Sarasota County Administrator Jim Ley threatened City of Sarasota leaders with the relocation of county administrative facilities outside downtown Sarasota. Observers saw that step as Ley’s means of gaining leverage to secure city leaders’ agreement to help pay for expanded 12th Judicial Court and other needs along the Ringling Boulevard corridor.
County staff stayed in downtown Sarasota, but the planned construction on Ringling has yet to take place.
Sixteen-and-a-half years later, during their December 2019 retreat, county commissioners began talking in earnest about moving county offices out of downtown. This time, their concern was their outdated Administration Center, which is located at 1660 Ringling Blvd.
During subsequent discussions this year, which took place during regular board meetings, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho addressed the cost projections for continued maintenance — and anticipated renovations — if the board members were to keep operations in the former GTE facility that towers over Ringling Boulevard at the Pine Place intersection.
Maintenance over the next 10 years is expected to add up to $14.5 million, Botelho noted; for 20 years, $31 million.
Combining those expenses with the anticipated cost of renovations pushed the respective figures to $32.5 million and $49 million.
During a May 2013 presentation to the commission, during a budget workshop, staff reviewed the findings of a 2008 county Facilities Assessment Study, which covered 51 buildings. The structure at 1660 Ringling Blvd. was included.
As a result of that study, staff reported then, the deficiencies and “life-cycle replacement needs” for the County Administration Center were estimated at $2,890,151.
Repairs planned during the 2012-2103 period were to address parking lot problems, plus tree removal, at a cost of $250,000; replacement of the cooling towers and roof drains, $680,000; electrical work, $50,000; and improvements to the heating and air conditioning system, $140,000.
In just the past four years — since 2016 — the county has spent a total of $2,560,080 on the County Administration Center, The Sarasota News Leader learned from the county’s General Services Department, whose director is Jeff Lowdermilk.
As a result of the funding concerns, the commissioners on Sept. 23 voted unanimously to approve a $174,000 contract with Sweet Sparkman Architects of Sarasota to work with the county’s Capital Projects staff on details related to the construction of a new facility.
Moreover, the board members voiced support for County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and his staff to hold discussions with a firm called Stock Development, which had provided staff an unsolicited proposal for a new, 200,000-square-foot complex on 6 vacant acres the firm owns in the northeast quadrant of Fruitville Road and Interstate 75.
Facts and figures
The site of the County Administration Center in downtown Sarasota encompasses 125,482 square feet, the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s Office says. The property is zoned Downtown Core in the City of Sarasota.
The city’s Municipal Code says the Downtown Core district “is a very dense mixed-use urban area. Residential dwellings are generally multiple-family and located in tall structures. Residential dwellings may be built up to a maximum density of 50 dwelling units per acre. Non-residential uses are varied and include department stores, entertainment facilities, restaurants, offices and lodging uses. Ground floor retail is allowed everywhere and is mandatory on certain designated frontages. Building height shall be limited to a maximum of ten stories [except under special circumstances]. Building frontages include stoops, forecourts and storefronts.”
Constructed in 1973, the County Administration Center is six stories tall with 168,5005 square feet of habitable space, the Property Appraiser’s Office record notes.
On Dec. 31, 1993, the county paid telecommunications company GTE Florida Inc., based in Hillsborough County, $5,588,000 for the land and the building, the Property Appraiser’s Office and Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s Office records say.
This year, the Property Appraiser’s Office put the value of the land at $6,162,000; it assigned the structure a market value of $38,576,700.
In response to the News Leader’s request for information about projects undertaken at the complex in recent years, to keep it functional, the General Services Department staff provided a list of 19 initiatives. The most expensive — which took place in the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years — was the transformation of the sixth floor from an Emergency Operations Center to the home of the county’s Enterprise Information Technology Department (EIT), headed by Glenn Zimmerman. The total expense was $673,444, the list shows.
For years, county Emergency Management staff members had worried about trying to deal with storms as they operated out of the 1660 Ringling Blvd. building; the structure could not withstand a hurricane rated above Category 2, which has wind up to 110 mph.
The EIT project was made possible by the completion of the Emergency Operations Center, which opened in 2015 on county-owned property on Porter Road, near I-75.
A May 21, 2019 staff memo provided to the commissioners pointed out that the EIT initiative “included the demolition of the existing command centers and refreshing paint, carpet, and furniture, but it did not include replacing any of the mechanical building systems.”
The second most expensive project on the General Services list was the replacement of the fuel tank for the generator to keep the building at 1660 Ringling Blvd. functioning during an electrical outage. That total was $414,289.
A Nov. 5, 2019 memo from General Services Director Lowdermilk, explained that when the county acquired the GTE building, the structure was “equipped with a full capacity generator. The existing underground fuel tank for the generator was installed in 1992 and is at end of life.”
“In order to minimize potential future environmental impacts and provide a more resilient system in the case of a storm emergency,” he continued, “the underground tank is being replaced with an above ground tank. … The existing underground tank and the surrounding area were tested for petroleum contamination in 2017. Nothing remarkable was discovered. The tank will be cleaned, foam filled and abandoned in place.”
The new tank, he noted in the memo, would have a capacity of 8,000 gallons.
“Storefront hurricane windows” were another weather-related expense, adding up to $224,510, according to the list provided to the News Leader.
An Aug. 27, 2019 memo from Lowdermilk to the County Commission explained that, shortly after the county acquired the former GTE structure, the county remodeled it. That included the installation of windows that were one-quarter-inch thick, with aluminum frames. “The existing windows and doors are not rated for impact and do not meet the Florida Building Code of 110 mph impact,” Lowdermilk added. “Additionally, they have been boarded-up numerous times in preparation for incoming storms, resulting in unsightly holes in the frames.”
He noted that the new frames would be wider and thicker, and they would comply with the stipulations of the 2017 Florida Building Code. Further, they would be impact-resistant and carry a National Fenestration Rating Council-certified energy performance value.
Earlier, in April 2019, the County Commission approved a contract with Johnson Controls Inc., a Wisconsin corporation, for “design engineering services, new installations, replacements and upgrades for Building Automation Systems and Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning equipment” at the Administration Center.
The replacement of the chiller, which provides air conditioning to the facility, cost $379,192, according to the list provided to the News Leader. However, the expense of new piping for the chilled water was even higher: $383,241.
Yet another project in the past four years was the “Think Tank refresh,” which cost $41,480.
The Think Tank, which is located on the third floor, is where the County Commission traditionally holds its budget workshops.
Commissioners Alan Maio and Charles Hines have been among the most vocal of the board members in expressing a desire for the relocation of the downtown Sarasota county offices, given the anticipation that expenses to continue operations there will just keep going up.
During the Sept. 23 discussion, Hines talked of the “money that we waste [on a structure that] is never going to be right. … We gotta go.”