With an improving economic outlook, the County Commission approves $3.8 million for renovations at its R.L. Anderson Center in Venice
By Rachel Brown Hackney
At the end of the six-and-a-half-hour Sarasota County Commission budget workshop on Aug. 20, County Administrator Tom Harmer ticked off the board’s accomplishments.
• Yes to an extra $140,357 to expand the Sheriff’s Offender Work Program at the request of 12th Judicial Circuit Court Judge David Denkin.
• Yes to Suncoast Charities for Children’s request for a grant not to exceed $94,200, plus a waiver of $3,500 in county fees, so it can host the 2015 Suncoast Offshore Super Boat Grand Prix.
(Commissioner Joe Barbetta cited the 2014 Super Boat Grand Prix Festival’s $17 million impact on the economy.)
• Yes to a request by the Sarasota Family YMCA for funds to help it operate the Selby Aquatic Center at its Potter Park facility, with the amount not to exceed $50,000 for FY 2015. The county will allocate it $200,000 each year from FY 2016 through FY 2024.
(A staff presentation showed the economic impact of swimming competitions held at the center over the past five years, including the Pan American Games in 2013. In 1998, the county entered into a 20-year lease agreement with the YMCA for land at the park to be used in creating the 50-meter pool.)
But the biggest winner was the South County courthouse complex within the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice. Responding to pleas from court officials and attorneys, the commissioners approved $3.8 million for renovations that will mean the relocation of three constitutional officers’ facilities from the structure — those of the Tax Collector, the Property Appraiser and the Supervisor of Elections.
During the Open to the Public segment at the beginning of the meeting, several attorneys renewed their arguments for the funding.
“We do not have the space that we need for hearings in South County,” Beth G. Waskom, president of the South County Division of the Sarasota County Bar Association, told the commissioners. “We do not have the room for depositions. We do not have the room for mediations. We do not even have the room for traffic court.”
She added, “It is imperative that we get [the Anderson Center] renovated into a second courthouse so that we can help the residents in the South County area.”
Robert Klingbeil Jr., president-elect of the South County Division of the Bar Association, pointed out that “a wealth” of office space is available in South County that would enable residents to have better access to — and more parking for —the constitutional officers’ facilities. “The time to move is now.”
Later that morning, Acting Assistant County Administrator Steve Botelho, who also is the county’s chief financial planning officer, pointed out that the planned advance refunding of surtax — or sales tax — revenue bonds, which will come before the board for approval on Sept. 10, is expected immediately to free up about $2.1 million in cash for surtax projects. Revised figures show that over the next five years, the county would have $10.4 million available in cash, or it could use that money to provide $12 million in borrowing capacity over the same period.
Further, Botelho noted, if the county successfully negotiates the sale to Benderson Development of 42 acres of prime property on Fruitville Road for a complex of speculative industrial buildings, another $3 million will go back into the surtax pot.
When Vice Chairwoman Christine Robinson asked whether those figures take into account growth in sales tax revenue over the next five years, Botelho said staff conservatively projects an increase of 2 to 3 percent per year. Therefore, if the surtax revenue rises annually by 6 to 8 percent, that would mean even more funding for projects. “We want to be on the safe side of things,” he added of the projections.
Richard Gleitsman of the Office of Financial Management told the board that if the surtax revenue grew by 6 percent a year instead of 3, that probably would provide another $1.5 million to $2 million annually for capital projects.
When Commissioner Nora Patterson then asked whether the $3.8 million estimate for the Anderson Center renovations included the expense of relocating the constitutional officers’ facilities, Ed Gable, director of facilities and fleet services for the county, said the figure does not include the cost of physically moving the offices into new space. All other expenses have been factored in, Gable indicated, including the cost of those offices operating in other locations.
A May 16 presentation Gable made to the board projected the expense of leasing or purchasing new space for those constitutional officers at $1.2 million.
Robinson made the motion to approve the allocation of $3.8 million for the South County courts. Patterson seconded it.
“This probably affects … besides the roads program … the broadest population as far as a capital improvement,” Robinson pointed out. “This is something I was working on before I stepped into office [in late 2010], and I’m excited to see that we’re going to have enough money for it …”
“It’s been a long time coming,” Patterson added.
“This has been a long overdue need down there that we’re fulfilling,” Commissioner Joe Barbetta said.
The May 16 presentation to the board called for the Anderson Center’s second floor layout to include three new courtrooms, a renovated pre-trial/conference room, the existing holding cells and the installation of new technology in the existing three courtrooms.
The offices of the Public Defender and the Clerk of Court would be moved to renovated space on the first floor. The Office of the State Attorney would remain in its existing suite, while the court administration facilities would be relocated into renovated space that has served as the South County office for the Tax Collector.
Offender Work Program
Regarding the Sheriff’s Offender Work Program, Sheriff Tom Knight addressed the County Commission about the request from the judicial system when he presented his budget on June 25. He had learned of it just after submitting his 2015 fiscal year spending plan to county staff, he said.
On Aug. 20, County Administrator Harmer explained that the program began in October 2010 as an alternative to jailing people convicted of minor offenses. The offenders perform supervised manual labor that needs to be done at county facilities. Altogether, Harmer said, participants from October 2010 through the year-to-date performed work that otherwise would have cost the county $2,983,178. The program expense for the same period was $458,152, covering one squad with two Sheriff’s Office employees and the necessary equipment.
At present, because of the popularity of the program among judges, offenders have a three-month wait to get into it.
The requested additional funding will pay for two more full-time equivalent employees, one van with a trailer, fuel and maintenance for the 2015 fiscal year.
“It’s been proven to be an excellent program,” Commissioner Barbetta said. “The recidivism rate is quite low.”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, he pointed out, he was at the county’s Babe Ruth Park for an event when one of the coaches commented on the baseball field being “in incredible shape.” Sheriff Knight, who was present, told Barbetta that people in the Offender Work Program deserved the credit, because they had handled the upkeep.
Referring to the county’s savings as a result of the offenders’ labor, Vice Chairwoman Robinson added, “You could easily add a 5 to that number and make that $52 million.” The program has enabled the county to hold off on building a new jail, she noted.
“Sitting in jail, you actually cost society,” Chairman Charles Hines said.
Roads and bridges
Resurfacing county roads remains a priority for Robinson. On Aug. 20, she asked Harmer, “Have we begun to think about how we’re going to handle that in the future or developed some sort of plan?”
Nothing has been finalized, Harmer replied, adding that he is aware it costs more to reconstruct roads that have fallen into serious disrepair than it does to keep them resurfaced.
Isaac Brownman, director of public works, told Robinson, “Right now, there have not been other options to look for other than surtax.” Until the county sees a strong resurgence in the economy and gas tax revenue, he continued, “We’re basically doing the patchwork …”
“You’re not going to have any relief from the gas tax” unless the state and federal governments change their revenue-sharing mechanisms, Commissioner Patterson told Brownman. “Cars are getting more and more mileage all the time.”
Then Patterson voiced her concern about the condition of the county’s bridges.
James K. Harriott Jr., the county’s chief engineer, reminded the board that the most critical project in recent years was the replacement of the Myakka Road bridge.
“You don’t have any structurally deficit bridges in your network,” Harriott noted, “but you have several — many — functionally obsolete bridges that are fine operating that way,” including the Manasota Key bridge. “What you need to address is structural improvements and corrections.”
“Do we have the money for that?” Patterson asked.
“We wish we had more to take care of that,” he replied. “The movable bridges are a problem that we will continue to address year-to-year in budgets.”
“You’re saying we’re marginally comfortable, but it is going to be a problem at some point, but not as much as paving,” Patterson said, seeking clarification.
“Correct,” Harriott told her.