County commissioners debate staff’s approach to basin analysis
What was pegged as an update for the Sarasota County Commission this week on the county’s Stormwater Environmental Utility Program and new state water quality standards ended up with commissioners confused about the action staff wanted, one commissioner warning about spending money unnecessarily, and County Administrator Randall Reid affirming that staff needed to be clear about what it wanted in any appearance before the board.
At one point in the discussion, Commissioner Nora Patterson said, “This is about as clear as mud.”
John Ryan, a manager in the Environmental Utilities Department, told the commission June 27 that in February, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law new standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and chlorophyll in the state’s waterways.
The Hudson Bayou and Phillippi Creek basins were just over the maximum allowed level for phosphorus, Ryan said, but the Gottfried Creek Basin, which drains into Lemon Bay near Englewood, had a phosphorus level considerably higher than the state allowed.
When Commissioner Joe Barbetta asked whether a plant nursery was in the area, Theresa A. Connor, director of the Environmental Utilities Department, replied that there was.
“It seems like that might be one of the sources,” Barbetta told her.
Patterson said she recalled from owning a nursery years ago that the county’s soil had a naturally higher level of phosphorus. A county extension agent had formulated a fertilizer for her business, she said, that excluded phosphorus for that reason.
“We’ve done some testing of the situation with the area [of Gottfried Creek],” Connor said, but staff still was unable to determine the source of the problem.
“So there’s not enough ground phosphorus to explain this?” Patterson asked.
“No,” Connor said.
Dealing with the permits
Connor also pointed out that if the Florida Department of Environmental Protection found any impaired waterways in the county within five years after it issued a new stormwater management plan permit for the county, state law would allow DEP to step in and ensure the county took the necessary measures to solve the problems.
Because the county would have to renew its stormwater permits in 2013, Connor suggested that a study of the phosphorus situation in Gottfried Creek could serve as a pilot program for handling the new state standards.
County staff could work with landowners, businesses and organizations in the affected community, Connor said, “to see what can be done to reduce the nutrient loadings in that basin.”
When Commissioner Jon Thaxton asked how long an analysis of the problem would take, Connor replied, “It shouldn’t take long … a matter of months.”
When Barbetta asked how much the initiative would cost, Connor said, “I would think it would be in the $50,000 range …”
Then Barbetta asked whether such an effort would come under the scope of work for which the county already had hired the firm of Jones Edmonds & Associates of Gainesville.
“They were looking a little more holistic in nature,” Connor said.
Still, Barbetta told her, he wanted staff to check into the charge given to Jones Edmonds, because the county already had paid the firm between $6 million and $7 million, “and I want to make sure we’ve gotten our money’s worth.”
Connor said staff would check into that.
What action is appropriate?
“Do you need us to authorize anything?” Chairwoman Christine Robinson asked.
“You’re not voting on it today,” Connor said of the analysis, adding that she was seeking board consensus on having staff work on amending the Gottfried Creek Basin Master Plan.
After the study was done, she said, staff would come back to the board for approval of whatever next steps seemed appropriate.
“Sooner or later we’re going to have to deal with the [nutrient] loading analysis,” Thaxton said. “Once the threshold is established and you have multiple exceedents of the threshold, either you demonstrate you’re going to fix it or [state officials] are going to fix it for us.”
In the latter event, he added, “all local discretion is removed. … This [basin study] is a good first step to avoiding that.”
Barbetta said he still was not willing to give his OK for funding a study.
Then a motion would be needed, Robinson said.
“What you’re saying is you want to do a narrower study and bring the details of the plan back to us?” Patterson asked Connor.
“Correct,” Connor told her, adding, “We’re not creating any future obligations for you to accept anything.”
Patterson said she would make a motion to include the language Connor wanted. Robinson phrased it as “moving that Environmental Services study the results of data for the Gottfried Creek Basin Master Plan and bring that back to us for review.”
Thaxton seconded it.
However, Barbetta told Connor her department could do the study. “You’re stormwater engineers for the county. Isn’t that part of your job?”
“It’s just having the time and the people to dedicate to this particular thing,” Connor said, which is why she had suggested a consultant do the study.
Then Barbetta told her, “I don’t know your workload. That’s up to you and Mr. Reid.”
“We wish we had the time,” Connor told Barbetta.
“This would seem as though it would be a part of the regular tasks of staff,” Robinson said.
When Robinson then asked for help in clarifying what was being sought, Reid told her, “I think we can review whether we have the ability to do [the study] in-house or not. But I think the recommendation is to try to address this through consulting contracts.”
“Then we need to say that in a motion,” Robinson replied, adding that she had not understood from an earlier, one-on-one discussion with staff, before the meeting, that consulting fees would be sought.
Connor reiterated that the presentation was designed partly just to let the board know “we need to amend the Gottfried Creek Basin Master Plan. We’re not asking you to approve a contract.”
Connor added, “As we get into it and look at it, if we would need to have a consultant to do the actual analysis … we can look at whether we can do that in-house or externally.”
When Robinson clarified that Connor would come back to the board for any vote on paying for such a contract, Connor said that was correct.
“We want to be transparent,” Connor added.
When Patterson then asked if she could postpone a vote on her motion until Connor came back to the board, to seek a vote on the scope of the work needed to amend the basin plan, Robinson suggested it would be simpler to rule the motion out of order.
“Fine,” Patterson said.
“Thank you,” Robinson told her.
Then Patterson said to Connor, “I actually believe that you probably don’t have enough in-house staff to do [the study] … and that’s another whole philosophic discussion.”
However, Patterson added, “I, like others, really do like to know what I’m voting for.”
“I apologize for the lack of clarity,” Connor said.
Then Commissioner Carolyn Mason said that in regard to the inter-office memos the board received from staff, “It’s really important to have the recommended motion or action staff is looking for …
“To me, [what staff is seeking] ought to be crystal clear, and this [memo] doesn’t say you’re looking for any particular action,” Mason told Connor.
“If staff is looking for something,” Reid said, “it ought to be in the staff [material] submitted to the board.”
When he originally heard details about the stormwater management presentation for the June 27 meeting, Reid said, no mention was made of a need for board action.
“I believe [the prepared staff presentation] should conclude with the recommendation reflected in the [commission’s meeting material] packet,” he added, “if there is going to be a request for action.”